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Russia struggles against the delta variant and low vaccination rates

Authorities in parts of Russia are now mandating vaccination, in the face of high COVID-19 infections and record deaths. Just 25 percent of adults are fully inoculated in the country. With four domestic vaccines available, Russians are not facing any shortages, but the government is struggling with widespread skepticism. Special correspondent Julia Chapman reports.

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  • William Brangham:

    Authorities in parts of Russia are now mandating vaccination, in the face of high COVID-19 infections and record deaths. Just 25 percent of adults are fully inoculated in the country. With four domestic vaccines available, Russians aren`t facing any shortages, but the government is struggling with widespread skepticism and reluctance to take those available vaccines.

    Special correspondent Julia Chapman reports from Western Siberia.

  • Julia Chapman:

    More Russians fear the vaccine than they do the virus. But Irina Emelyanova is not one of them. A teacher in the Siberian city of Tomsk, she is allergic to lactose, and is careful about what she puts in her body.

    So when it came to getting vaccinated against COVID-19, Irina did her research. She chose one of the country`s four shots, EpiVacCorona, reported to cause milder side effects than the alternatives. But two weeks after her second dose, Irina caught coronavirus. A week later, she was in a makeshift hospital, which filled up rapidly.

  • Irina Emelyanova, Recovered COVID-19 Patient:

    The main problem is there are too many people, especially nowadays, it`s about 200. When we arrived, there were just 30 of us and everything was okay. It was very difficult. I stopped sleeping. I could sleep only from midnight to 3:00 or 4:00 a.m.

  • Julia Chapman:

    The government says only 2.5 percent of COVID-19 infections are among those already vaccinated. But stories like Irina`s are fuelling already widespread skepticism. Russia was the first country to approve a COVID-19 shot for mass use. It`s only using domestically-produced vaccines.

    Health officials say they are all safe and effective. But that judgment came before any had full trial data. Peer-reviewed results have since validated the Sputnik vaccine, which is being used most widely. But experts have cast doubt on the one Irina received. EpiVacCorona is a peptide vaccine, produced by state-run lab Vektor. It uses synthetic viral proteins, which are meant to teach the immune system to identify and neutralize the virus.

  • Olga Matveeva, Molecular Biologist:

    The vaccine was approved to market for people to use before second or third phases were completed. So — and that practically means that if you have leverage, if you have connection with government and with approval organization, you can get anything to the market. So — and that`s a huge room for corruption.

  • Julia Chapman:

    The Vektor Lab says antibodies can`t be detected using normal tests, but only with its own technology. Some clinical trial volunteers attempted to verify their immunity. Independent labs could find no neutralizing antibodies.

  • Dmitry Kulish:

    The story of EpiVac is unfortunate. And again, I was openly criticizing EpiVac. Still, at the end of the day, if you don`t want to take EpiVac, you can get Sputnik, I guarantee you. Even if you live in remote Siberian towns where the dominant vaccination was running by EpiVac, and you don`t want EpiVac, you go across the street, and you get Sputnik.

  • Julia Chapman:

    But surveys suggest that 55 percent of Russians don`t want a vaccine at all. Most cite fear of side effects and the speed at which they were produced. Polls suggest that critics of the Putin government are also less likely to get a shot.

    The low vaccination rate has left Russia exposed to a third wave of infections. Outside of Moscow, pop-up hospitals and converted COVID wards are re-opening.

    In Tomsk, hospital beds are filling up, even as authorities open more dedicated facilities like this one. The delta variant is simply spreading faster than the population can be convinced to get vaccinated.

    So, authorities have started making vaccination mandatory. In a quarter of Russian regions, certain groups are now obligated to get immunized. The rules vary, but mostly apply to those working in the state or service sectors. President Vladimir Putin has at once distanced himself from the policy, and insisted that it`s legal.

  • Vladimir Putin, Russian President (through translator):

    I once said that I do not support mandatory vaccination, and I continue to adhere to this point of view. However, the law says that in the event of an increase in the number of cases and in the event of an epidemic, regional heads can introduce mandatory vaccination for certain groups of people, especially risk groups.

  • Julia Chapman:

    COVID vaccine skeptics don`t live in the shadows in Russia. But Marina, an accountant, who asked us not to use her real name, fears her job is at risk. She is one of millions of Russians whose employer has ordered her to be vaccinated.

  • Marina, COVID Vaccine Skeptic (through translator):

    We don`t know this vaccine. We don`t know what it is. I don`t want to inject myself with something unknown. And we don`t trust our government. But if we don`t have a medical exemption to vaccination, we`ll be sent home without pay.

  • Julia Chapman:

    Some of Marina`s colleagues have turned to the black market for their vaccine certificate. She says she may do the same. Authorities are cracking down on the practice, arresting those suspected of selling them.

    But demand for fake certificates sits in stark contrast to many countries, where people are lining up to get vaccinated. While vaccine mandates are controversial, they`ve doubled Russia`s rate of inoculation.

  • Andrei Fyodoruk, Doctor (through translator):

    In Moscow, people can get vaccinated at pop-up clinics and parks, at their doctor`s office. So the mass vaccination will certainly lead to the development of collective immunity.

  • Julia Chapman:

    That target is still a long way off. And in the meantime, people are dying. In other countries, rising immunization rates have led to falling fatalities. That hasn`t been the case in Russia. Although the official infection figures are still lower than in winter, daily deaths from the virus are higher than ever. Statistics show more than 400,000 excess deaths since the start of the pandemic, one of the worst per capita rates in the world.

    The Kremlin has ruled out another unpopular lockdown. Ahead of parliamentary elections in September, it`s relying on vaccines to carry Russians to the polls.

    Irina also wants her fellow citizens to get a shot.

  • Irina Emelyanova:

    Some people don`t want to get the vaccine, some people think it`s a kind of politics. They don`t understand that our government, our scientists are trying to help people to protect themselves.

  • Julia Chapman:

    She`s confident that vaccines are the only chance to keep future waves of the virus at bay.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I`m Julia Chapman, in Tomsk.

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