MOSCOW >> The Russian government has approved three coronavirus vaccines as safe and effective, but Vadim Zhukov took his own approach to testing: He let a friend take one first.
“I waited to see what happened to him,” said Zhukov, 21, a university student. His friend was fine. Two months later, Zhukov was standing in line this week at a vaccination site in central Moscow.
Extrapolated across Russia’s 11 time zones and millions of hesitant citizens, that same wait-and-see attitude toward vaccination has taken its toll.
Russia is again in the grips of a virus surge, despite months of assurances from President Vladimir Putin’s government that the worst of the pandemic had passed. The spiraling outbreak has come as a surprise, even in the words of the senior officials behind those assurances.
Russian virus experts say that the Delta variant, first found in India, is now the most prevalent strain in Moscow. Mayor Sergei Sobyanin told local media Friday that 89.3% of all new coronavirus cases in the city involve the Delta variant.
Quickly rising case numbers put Russia at risk of following in the path of other countries such as India that seemed to have squelched infections only to see a resurgence.
The outbreak is most pronounced in Moscow, the capital, where case numbers have tripled over the past two weeks, according to city officials, who have added 5,000 beds to coronavirus wards. Moscow health authorities reported 9,056 positive tests Friday, the highest daily figure for the city since the pandemic began.
Russia has reported 125,853 deaths from COVID-19 since the pandemic started, but statistics showing excess mortality over the past year suggest the real number is far higher.
“This dynamic is something of a surprise,” Sobyanin told a meeting of government officials Thursday. Sobyanin suggested that officials had overestimated how long natural immunity from earlier rounds of infection would provide protection.
Across Russia, only 9.9% of the population is fully vaccinated, though Russia last summer claimed to be the first country in the world to have approved a vaccine. For comparison, 44% of Americans are fully vaccinated.
Cases crept up slowly throughout the spring, then spiked this month.
“For some reason, and I think that reason was political, they said everything is going well,” Vasily Vlasov, a professor of epidemiology at the Higher School of Economics, said of Russian authorities. But now infection rates are “very high, and we need action.”
Over the winter, little was done to encourage Russians to get vaccinated.
In fact, to avoid stimulating demand late last year when vaccines were scarce, Putin delayed his own inoculation until March, though age-wise he qualified months earlier, the Kremlin press office said. He did not receive it on camera.
Today, skepticism persists even though vaccines are widely available. The Levada Center, a polling agency, surveyed Russian attitudes about vaccination in April and found that 62% did not intend to get a Russian-made vaccine, all that is available in Russia.
“They fear side effects. They don’t trust vaccines in principle, or they want to wait and see what happens to other people first” because of a general mistrust of the government, said Denis Volkov, deputy director of the Levada Center.
Russia is now pivoting to mandating vaccines for some public-facing workers in Moscow and three provincial regions and limiting the working hours of restaurants.
Out on the streets of Moscow, on the first balmy days of spring, police tape went up around children’s playgrounds and basketball courts, in a grim reminder of the persistence of the coronavirus.
City authorities on Friday announced a requirement that customers present proof of vaccination at restaurants and bars open later than 11 p.m., in a partial introduction of a “vaccine passport” approach to controlling access to crowded spaces.
The partial vaccine mandate introduced in the city this week does not put the onus on individuals. Instead, employers are required to show by Aug. 15 that at least 60% of their workforce is fully vaccinated.
The policy leaves it to managers to persuade workers to get vaccinated while allowing some to decline. People with medical reasons to avoid vaccination do not count toward the total.
Many Russians flatly refuse to take the Sputnik V vaccine, which the government approved for emergency use in August before late-stage clinical trials had proved its safety.
It has since been proven safe and effective in clinical trials that were subsequently published in the British medical journal The Lancet.
“It makes healthy people sick,” said Ivan Ivanov, a manager at a construction company, interviewed on a sidewalk in Moscow where he was enjoying an afternoon walk. He said he would never get the vaccine. “I believe in God and God helps me.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.