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Russia COVID vaccine draws mixed response

While excitement and enthusiasm greeted the Western-developed coronavirus vaccine when it was rolled out, the Russian-made version has received a mixed response, with reports of empty Moscow clinics that offered the shot to health care workers and teachers – the first members of the public designated to receive it.

Kremlin officials and state-controlled media touted the Sputnik V vaccine as a major achievement after it was approved August 11.

But among Russians, hope that the shot would reverse the course of the COVID-19 crisis has become mixed with wariness and scepticism, reflecting concerns about how it was rushed out while still in its late-stage testing to ensure its effectiveness and safety.

Russia faced international criticism for approving a vaccine that hasn’t completed advanced trials among tens of thousands of people, and experts both at home and abroad warned against its wider use until the studies are completed.

Despite those warnings, authorities started offering it to certain high-risk groups, such as front-line medical workers, within weeks of approval.

Alexander Gintsburg, head of the Gamaleya Institute that developed the vaccine, said last week more than 150,000 Russians had received it.

Russia approved its vaccine after it was tested on only a few dozen people, touting it as “the first in the world” to receive a go-ahead.

Developers named it Sputnik V, a reference to the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of the world’s first satellite during the Cold War.

More than just national pride is at stake. Russia has recorded more than 2.7 million cases of COVID-19, and over 48,000 deaths, and it wants to avoid another damaging lockdown of its economy.

Its developers have said study data suggests the vaccine was 91 per cent effective, a conclusion based on 78 infections among nearly 23,000 participants.

That’s far fewer cases than Western drugmakers have accumulated during final testing before analysing their candidates’ efficacy, and important demographic and other details from the study have not been released.

Some experts say such efficacy rates inspire optimism, but public trust may be an issue.

A poll conducted in October by the Levada Center, Russia’s top independent pollster, showed that 59 per cent of Russians were unwilling to get the shots even if offered for free.

Media reports suggested there may be problems with scaling up the manufacture and distribution of Sputnik V. It uses two different adenovirus vectors for the two-shot regimen, which complicates production. In addition, the low-temperature storage and transport makes it harder to move across the vast country.

There also were confused signals about whether recipients should consume alcohol. Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova said those getting vaccinated should refrain from drinking three days before and after the shots.

Several medical workers in Siberia who received the vaccine later reported contracting the virus, but health officials said not enough time had passed for them to develop the antibodies.

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