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Russia launches COVID-19 booster shots amid soaring infections and deaths

People in masks stand in a line marked by yellow tape to ensure distancing.
People stand in line for COVID-19 vaccinations at Moscow’s Gorky Park.
(Alexander Zemlianichenko / Associated Press)

Russian health authorities on Thursday launched COVID-19 booster vaccinations for people immunized more than six months ago, as the country faces a surge in new infections and deaths.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said he had received a booster shot and urged city residents to follow suit.

“In view of the difficult epidemiological situation today, doctors recommend having booster shots six months after vaccination,” Sobyanin said on his blog. “I’m pleading with you not to miss a chance to get additional protection from the virus, which is particularly important amid the spread of a more aggressive delta variant.”

Moscow health authorities on Thursday started offering booster shots with the domestically produced two-shot Sputnik V vaccine and its one-shot Sputnik Light version. Other Russian regions are also starting to offer booster shots.

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Health Minister Mikhail Murashko said at a government meeting Tuesday that the ministry had issued guidelines for those who had had COVID-19 to be vaccinated six months after they recovered, and for those who have been immunized to get booster shots six months after their first vaccination.

Health authorities said the more contagious Delta variant of the virus accounted for the bulk of recent new infections in Moscow and some other regions. The nation’s chief sanitary doctor, Anna Popova, confirmed Tuesday that authorities also registered the first infection with the “Delta plus” variant, which has an extra mutation, although its significance is unclear.

Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova cited studies indicating that immunity in those who had recovered from the virus persisted for six months on average and wound down gradually after nine to 12 months.

The Health Ministry’s guidelines indicated that the booster shots would be rolled out until at least 60% of the population had immunity against the coronavirus. Once that goal is reached, booster shots will be delivered once a year.

If scientists discover that immunity to the coronavirus starts to wane months or years after vaccination, a booster shot could be deployed.

The new guidelines come as infections in Russia are soaring and vaccination rates lag behind those of many other nations.

Russia’s state coronavirus task force has been reporting more than 20,000 new infections daily since June 24, more than double the average in early June. On Thursday, it reported 23,543 new cases and 672 deaths — the highest daily death toll since the start of the pandemic.

Russian officials have blamed the rise in cases on Russians’ lax attitude toward taking precautions, the growing prevalence of more infectious variants, and vaccine hesitancy. Although Russia was among the first countries to announce and deploy a COVID-19 vaccine, only about 23 million people — or 15% of its population of 146 million — have received at least one shot.

St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city, which is set to host the quarterfinal Euro 2020 match between Spain and Switzerland on Friday, has seen a sharp spike in infections recently.

“There are a lot of soccer fans here, both Russian and those who came from other countries,” said local resident Antonina Milenina. “That undoubtedly impacts the situation.”

Russia says that a coronavirus vaccine developed in the country has been registered for use, but critics say testing is not complete.

President Vladimir Putin revealed during Wednesday’s call-in show that he had received the Sputnik V vaccine earlier this year and stressed the importance of being vaccinated. The Russian leader, who received the shots out of the public eye, had previously refused to identify the vaccine he got to avoid offering a competitive advantage to its maker. Sputnik V is the most widespread of the four domestically designed vaccines in circulation.

Russia’s vaccination rates have picked up in recent weeks, after authorities in many regions made shots mandatory for employees in certain sectors, such as government offices, retail, healthcare, education, restaurants and other services.

While reaffirming his position that vaccinations should be voluntary, Putin emphasized that mandatory inoculation for some workers was based on the law and voiced hope that it could help prevent a nationwide lockdown.

In accordance with new rules effective since Monday, restaurants, bars and cafes in Moscow have only been admitting customers who have been vaccinated, have recovered from the coronavirus in the last six months or can show a negative result from a test done within the previous 72 hours — a measure that helped ramp up the pace of vaccination.

“In the past week, there has been an influx of people getting vaccinated,” said Natalia Kuzenkova, a doctor who was administering shots at the GUM shopping mall on Red Square. “We have increased our carrying capacity more than three times.”

Russia boasts that it’s about to be the first country to approve a COVID-19 vaccine, but it’s yet to complete clinical trials, raising concerns.

A surge in vaccination over the last few days was quickly followed, however, by reports of vaccine shortages in a number of Russian regions, and some experts have questioned whether Russia will have enough vaccines to go around.

Officials said earlier this week that 36.7 million sets of the four domestically developed COVID-19 vaccines had been released into circulation, and 30 million more are expected to be produced in July.

As a new wave of contagion spreads, authorities in some regions have started imposing travel restrictions.

As of Thursday, the southern Krasnodar region, which has a long stretch of the Black Sea coast, required incoming hotel and resort clients to produce a certificate of vaccination, a negative COVID-19 test or a document showing they had been previously sick with the virus.

Starting Aug. 1, only those with proof of vaccination or a document showing recovery from COVID-19 will be allowed into hotels and resorts. The stringent rules have triggered a wave of tour cancellations that has shaken the nation’s tourist industry.


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