How Muscovites built immunity against government health statistics
Russia's government admitted in October 2019 that the country's falling death rates had been manipulated, six months before government-tabulated Covid-19 statistics were weaponized to give authorities sweeping powers
Health officials warned of new ‘Moscow strain’ shortly before compulsory inoculation was introduced; variant was later downgraded to ‘hypothetical phenomenon’
Celebrity doctor called for compulsory vaccination on same day Moscow health official secretly signed jab decree; he was then nominated for a seat in the State Duma, an honor he accepted after receiving a personal phone call from Putin
Compulsory vaccination declared ‘new tool’ for fighting Covid-19, two weeks after Putin vowed inoculation would remain voluntary
As authorities claimed Moscow's healthcare system was on brink of collapse the city's airports kept opening up to more and more countries
Mayor Sobyanin credited mandatory vaccination with drastically reducing Covid-19 cases in Moscow over 18-day period; Sputnik V needs 21 days to create measurable levels of antibodies & immunity doesn't form until 42 days after first dose
Sobyanin dropped ‘life-saving’ digital health passes after 200 restaurants went out of business in less than 3 weeks
Large portion of Moscow's ‘excess’ Covid-19 bed occupancy was made up of patients originally hospitalized for other reasons
The price of extortion & coercion: support for Putin's United Russia plummets ahead of elections; ruling party relying on voter apathy to keep majority in parliament
On October 14, 2019 – just a few months before governments around the world began using health statistics as sacred writ to determine the permissibility of life’s most ordinary activities – Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev issued an epoch-defining order to his country’s regional governors: please stop manipulating health statistics.
“This is a lie in the truest sense of the word,” Medvedev said, referring to Russia’s phony mortality rates.
By the prime minister’s own admission, the encouraging results of a years-long public health initiative had been falsified under the watchful eye of the Russian government. How could this have happened?
In 2012, President Vladimir Putin signed what became known as the May Decrees, which set ambitious targets for improving economic factors, housing, education, and healthcare in Russia. Decree No. 598 ordered the Russian government to “ensure” by 2018 a reduction in mortality from diseases of the circulatory system, the country’s top killer. A plan to combat cardiovascular-related ailments unveiled several years earlier also took on renewed urgency.
The proclamation had an immediate effect. Heart attacks and strokes began claiming fewer Russian lives – a very promising sign. At the same time, mortality attributed to nondescript “other causes” began to skyrocket – a very coincidental sign.
Emboldened by these early signs of success, the Russian government declared 2015 the Year of the Fight Against Cardiovascular Diseases, apparently undeterred by the fact that there continued to be a dangerous shortage of specialized hospital beds used to treat cardiac patients.
The outcome of this ambitious public health strategy was conclusive and incontrovertible: Health Minister Veronika Skvortsova announced in February 2016 that mortality from cardiovascular diseases had plummeted by 16% over the past five years. It was of no particular importance that over the previous 12 months, only 12 of Russia’s 85 federal subjects had recorded a decrease in overall mortality that included fewer deaths from cardiovascular diseases as well as a reduction in fatalities from “other causes.” In Moscow and nine other regions, mortality from cardiovascular diseases decreased while overall mortality increased. Victory over heart failure was close at hand.
In March 2018, Putin gave an address to the Federal Assembly in which he hailed “the positive trends in treating cardiovascular disorders” that had been recorded in Russia. “We can see these positive trends, which is very good,” he noted.
Regretfully, the initiative’s overwhelming success was soon besmirched by anti-government naysayers such as the federally-funded Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA). The institute released a report which stated that it was “necessary to analyze the correctness of statistical information coming from the regions and conduct a detailed analysis of mortality rates.” The document also called for greater accountability for officials who provide “false reports on the causes of death.”
For a time, the Russian government pretended that nothing was amiss. Medvedev and Skvortsova met in July to discuss future targets for reducing cardiovascular-related deaths, while conspicuously avoiding discussion about the progress that had already been made.
But all good things must come to an end. In December 2018, Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova ordered regional governors to provide “a full justification” after it was determined that mortality from certain causes of death had been “underestimated.”
The Ministry of Health, which had readily rubber-stamped the problematic figures, absolved itself of wrongdoing and said any issues with the data should be taken up with Rosstat, Russia’s Federal State Statistics Service. Despite its denials, Skvortsova’s ministry reportedly played an active role in the odious scheme, and even retroactively changed its mortality targets to better fit the fraudulent statistics to predetermined benchmarks.
The official acknowledgment of the data’s defilement led to a months-long game of hot potato within the government, ending with Medvedev publicly throwing regional leaders under the bus almost a full year later. There would be severe consequences for anyone who continued to manipulate health statistics, he warned the country’s regional governors during their October 2019 meeting.
Fortunately for the Russian government, this well-intentioned misstep – cynically perceived by ungrateful curmudgeons as evidence that the country’s elite was not entirely committed to improving public health – would soon be buried under a mountain of flattering headlines extolling authorities for doing everything in their power to save lives.
Even more fortunately, Russia’s entrenched politicians and bureaucrats – who had just finished hosing the country’s mortality statistics as part of a years-long hoax – would soon be in charge of issuing a multitude of data-driven public health measures, like: “it’s too dangerous to go outside without the government’s permission” and “take this vaccine or you will lose your job.”
This was truly an epidemic of good fortune.
A ‘hypothetical phenomenon’ terrorizes Moscow
It was a deceptively humdrum mid-June afternoon when Muscovites learned that their city was under attack from a new and potentially more dangerous strain of coronavirus. The capital’s growing number of Covid cases – initially blamed on summertime mingling and people not wearing plastic gloves in the metro – was likely the pernicious work of a “purely Moscow” mutation of the virus, Alexander Gintsburg, director of the Gamaleya Institute, revealed on June 15, 2021.
Gintsburg’s institute – a subsidiary of the Russian Health Ministry – was already researching if its flagship Sputnik V vaccine would shield citizens from this unique emerging threat.
"At present, a study of the Moscow strain and the effectiveness of Sputnik V against it is underway. We think that the vaccine will be effective, but we must wait for the results of the study," Gintsburg said in an interview.
On the same day Gintsburg raised alarm over the appearance of the mysterious new strain, Moscow’s chief sanitary doctor signed a decree ordering businesses in various sectors to vaccinate 60% of their employees. The compulsory inoculation regime was announced the following day, on June 16, by Mayor Sergey Sobyanin.
“We are simply obliged to do everything in order to carry out mass vaccinations in the shortest possible time and stop this terrible disease [and] the death of thousands of people,” Sobyanin explained while unveiling the scheme.
Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin invoked a similar argument in support of the non-optional vaccination program.
“Experts talk about the emergence of new strains that not only spread rapidly but also lead to serious complications. This is a threat to human health and an additional burden on the health care system. It is necessary to protect citizens from illness,” he said.
But which “new strains” were ravaging the capital? Among experts, there was considerable confusion on the matter. A week after the city’s compulsory vaccination regime was announced, the Vector Institute, a government-operated biological research center, slightly readjusted the projected threat posed by the new Moscow strain.
"At present, it is difficult to judge the emergence of a clearly differentiated Moscow variety of the new coronavirus,” Vector said in a statement. Despite the recent discussion, the Moscow strain was "for the most part a conditional and hypothetical phenomenon."
After being downgraded to a theoretical proposition, the Moscow strain suddenly lacked the urgency it had seven days earlier – potentially creating the false impression that compulsory inoculation wasn’t absolutely necessary. This was a frustrating setback for public health but luckily authorities had already identified the true culprit behind the city’s new and unprecedented struggle against Covid-19: The Delta (“Indian”) strain, first detected in Russia in April, had suddenly made normal existence impossible.
It was quite an ambitious claim. On June 3, the Russian government disclosed that the Delta strain made up 24% of 1,068 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases involving variants of concern. (70% of cases were traced to the Alpha/British strain, while 6% were identified as the Beta/South African variant.) With nearly 1 in 4 cases being identified as the Delta strain by the start of June, the variant was not exactly a new anomaly.
Maybe it wasn’t exactly “new,” but what made Delta so formidable was its alleged lightning-fast transmissibility. But who could provide indisputable proof that Moscow was being hammered by a strain that was already floating around Russia in April? There was only one woman fit for the job: mortality rate specialist Veronika Skvortsova, Russia’s most trusted health statistics tabulator.
On June 18, Skvortsova released a report claiming that the Delta strain was responsible for 87% of lab-tested coronavirus cases in Moscow – up from 35% in the first week of the month.
(Skvortsova resigned as health minister on January 15, 2020. A week later she was appointed the head of FMBA, Russia’s federal biomedical agency. The agency has played a prominent role in Russia’s Covid-19 response.)
On the same day that Skvortsova revealed her shocking findings, Sobyanin announced that nearly 90% of Moscow’s Covid-19 patients were falling ill with the Delta strain.
“It turned out to be more aggressive, spreads faster, and the most unpleasant thing is that in order to resist it, the number of antibodies must be almost twice as high as against the Wuhan virus,” the mayor explained. “That is, in essence, we are starting to go through this story anew. And with more serious consequences. That is why we see such an explosive increase in morbidity, just a huge increase in hospitalizations.”
It all made sense now: the highly transmissible and more aggressive Delta strain, which requires double the number of antibodies to defend against, had essentially nullified all prior immunity to Covid-19 in Moscow. And it only took two months – a blink of an eye – for Covid-obsessed authorities to realize what was happening.
A little-known fact about the Delta strain: not only is it highly aggressive, but it’s also extremely difficult to detect. In late May – when the frequency of Delta cases began to surge – Moscow experienced a “significant decrease” in new infections. On June 3, Health Minister Mikhail Murashko noted that the incidence of Covid-19 in Russia was on the decline and that there was no evidence of a third wave of the virus.
This is obviously what one would expect during the rapid spread of a highly contagious and uniquely dangerous mutation that necessitated compulsory vaccination two weeks later.
May was a big month for Russian vaccine diplomacy. On May 14, Sputnik V became the first foreign-made Covid-19 vaccine to be used in India’s inoculation program, and there were already plans in place for Indian manufacturers to produce 850 million doses of the vaccine, a process that also began that month. On May 17, India's Shilpa Medicare announced that it had partnered with Russia to produce 50 million doses of Sputnik V over the next 12 months. More deals would be revealed in the following weeks, including with the world’s largest vaccine producer, India’s Serum Institute. Sputnik V’s arrival in India meant that the Russian government now had access to a massive new market – more than one billion unjabbed arms. It wasn’t about the money, of course. As SputnikVaccine.com explains: “As we are not aiming at extra high profits from the vaccine sales, the price will be competitive, max $10/dose.”
Business wasn’t as promising back home. By mid-May, only around 1.5 million Muscovites – in a city of more than 12 million – had received at least one dose. Despite the low vaccine uptake, the Russian capital was functioning normally with only minor, regularly ignored restrictions. It seemed as if the pandemic was winding down on its own without the need for large-scale inoculation.
This was slightly problematic for Sputnik V sales in India and elsewhere. If Moscow didn’t require mass vaccination to overcome Covid-19, why would Mumbai?
Thankfully there was a simple solution to this frustrating conundrum: create benchmarks that can only be measured by the Russian government, the same tried-and-true strategy used to defeat cardiovascular diseases.
On June 3, Health Minister Murashko explained that although coronavirus cases were declining and that “everything was calm” in Russia, at least 60% of the country would need to be vaccinated before mask mandates and other restrictions could be lifted.
His comments were echoed by Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova, who claimed that regardless of the country’s current epidemiological situation, 60% of Russians would have to get the shot in order to develop collective immunity – a process expected to take until September.
18 million Russians had received the first component of the vaccine by early June, around five months since the start of the country’s inoculation program. Another 70 million people would need to get the shot by autumn to meet Golikova’s deadline.
It was a herculean task. A compelling narrative – woven from consistent, evidence-based arguments – would need to be created to ensure enough people were injected with a vaccine that they might not want but desperately need.
The clock was ticking…
June 2: Valentina Matvienko, the speaker of Russia’s Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, states unequivocally that compulsory vaccination would be unlawful.
"Once again I want to confirm that we are all supporters of the fact that there can be no compulsory vaccination, because this will be a gross violation of the law and the rules that we have," Matvienko says at a meeting of the Federation Council. "Our task is to explain to people that this information [about rumors of compulsory vaccination] does not correspond to reality.”
Regular air travel between Moscow and London resumes.
June 4: Health Minister Murashko announces that Russia has “turned the tide” with coronavirus. The country is “moving on the right course” but “the speed of movement depends on each of us,” he says, adding that vaccination is “one way” of creating collective protection against the virus.
On the same day, President Putin underscores that inoculation will remain completely voluntary.
"We are now ready to provide [the vaccine] to everyone who wants it. We will not force anyone," Putin says.
June 8: “The situation [with Covid-19] has improved, the situation has stabilized,” Deputy Minister of Health Oleg Gridnev tells the State Duma. He stresses that the disease is still deadly and that vaccination is the only way out of the pandemic.
June 9: A new uptick in Covid-19 cases in Moscow and other parts of Russia is likely due to summertime socializing, Gamaleya Institute chief Alexander Gintsburg says.
"Summer has come, there is much more communication, people's mobility is increasing compared to the winter period, therefore, naturally, an increase in the incidence among those who have not been vaccinated," Gintsburg explains.
The situation remains stable but more people need to get vaccinated to avoid a resurgence of the virus, Natalya Pshenichnaya, deputy director at Rospotrebnadzor, Russia’s consumer protection agency, claims.
“It is wrong to conclude that we are on the verge of a new upswing. But now many people continue to ignore precautions, do not realize the need for vaccination and contribute to the circulation of the virus among the population,” she says.
June 10: Non-compliance with mask rules and social distancing guidelines is likely fueling the increase in new Covid-19 cases across Russia, Health Minister Murashko states.
“Everyone should take care of themselves in this situation, be vaccinated and take precautions.”
On the same day, Russia resumes regular flights with seven countries, including Austria, Croatia and Hungary. Travel was now restored with more than 40 countries, including India – typically not something you would do if you were concerned about the spread of variants, particularly the “Indian” strain.
June 11: Mayor Sobyanin warns Muscovites that a surge in Covid-19 cases is coming, despite the fact that “about half” of the city’s residents are already immune to the virus.
“We expected that the peak of the pandemic would be in April-May, like last year. In fact, it has shifted now, as we can see, to June-July,” Sobyanin announces, adding that the “severity of the disease… is getting worse.”
June 12: The Russian capital may have its own “Moscow strains,” Denis Logunov, deputy director of the Gamaleya Institute, tells Putin during an awards ceremony at the Kremlin.
He notes that although not all strains of coronavirus are dangerous, it is still necessary to monitor mutations and adapt accordingly. Logunov cites the Delta variant as an example, describing it as “not critical” but capable of reducing pre-existing immunity.
June 13: Anna Popova, the head of Rospotrebnadzor, urges people to get vaccinated in order to bolster the country’s collective immunity.
“Otherwise, we will not be able to open the borders,” she says, three days after Russia restored travel with more than half a dozen countries.
As cases continue to rise, Russia’s state-run news agency RIA Novosti interviews immunologist Vladislav Zhemchugov about the current epidemiological situation in the country.
“My colleagues and I did not notice any significant change in [Covid-19] symptoms. This was: fever, sore throat, and cough,” the doctor explains.
June 14: The Delta variant triggers “atypical symptoms” not associated with Covid-19 infection, infectious disease specialist Georgy Vikulov tells a Moscow radio station.
“For example, there is no disappearance of the sense of smell, and gastrointestinal symptoms can be similar to poisoning.”
Gamaleya Institute chief Gintsburg claims on the same day that the slow pace of vaccination in Russia could lead to the formation of new Covid-19 strains with “altered properties.”
June 15: The Russian capital already has a level of protection against the Delta variant, but the city could be ill-prepared to cope with the emergence of a ‘Moscow’ strain, Gintsburg suggests.
“The one and a half million Muscovites who were vaccinated are well protected from the Indian strain. But whether they will be just as well protected from the hypothetical ‘Moscow’ strain still needs to be studied,” he says, adding that the effectiveness of Sputnik V against the new mutation was currently being examined.
In an interview with state media, Denis Protsenko – the celebrity doctor who heads Kommunarka hospital, which houses one of Moscow’s main Covid-19 wards – says that mandatory vaccination “is the only way out of the current situation with the pandemic.” The only question now is how such a policy should be carried out, Protsenko insists.
He suggests that the sharp increase in new cases in Moscow is due to people not wearing masks and ignoring social distancing guidelines. It’s unclear whether the Moscow or Delta strains have played a role in the city's Covid-19 surge, but low rates of vaccination “create the biological prerequisite” for such situations, the doctor claims.
In a remarkable coincidence, on the same day that Protsenko advocated for mandatory inoculation, the chief state sanitary doctor of Moscow, Elena Andreeva, signed an order requiring millions of residents to get vaccinated. The decree was revealed to the public a day later, on June 16.
Four days after his prophetic interview, Protsenko was nominated by Putin’s United Russia party to run for a seat in the State Duma. He accepted the honor after receiving a personal phone call from the Russian president.
‘A new tool is compulsory immunization’
In a blog post published on June 16, Mayor Sobyanin announced the “difficult but necessary and responsible decision” to make vaccination mandatory for people working in public transportation, hospitality, education and other sectors.
“Ultimately, it's up to everyone to get vaccinated or not... But when you go out into public places and come into contact with other people, willingly or unwillingly, you become an accomplice of the epidemiological process,” Sobyanin explained.
Only around 1.5 million Muscovites had been fully vaccinated by June 16, meaning that the vast majority of the city was actively participating in this biological crime.
Meanwhile, Gintsburg had finally figured out what was responsible for the sudden surge in Covid-19 cases: a “modified Indian” strain. Always one step ahead of the epidemiological curve, the Gamaleya Institute chief said that he and his colleagues were already studying Sputnik V’s effectiveness against the unique mutation.
One of the most frightening aspects of this “modified” strain was that it constantly modified itself, making it very difficult for Russian authorities and media outlets to calculate how many unvaccinated Muscovites were at risk of losing limbs to gangrene:
June 16: “The Indian strain causes more severe consequences. Those infected more often develop blood clots, and hence the risk of strokes, gangrene, pulmonary embolism and mental disorders”; June 19: “The symptoms of the Indian strain of coronavirus are similar to those of colds, including a runny nose, sore throat and headache.”
June 17: “The bulk of the sick [from the Delta strain] are citizens aged 20 to 49… older people are less likely to get sick, as there are more of them vaccinated against coronavirus”; July 24: “Elderly people still account for the majority of coronavirus-related deaths”; August 3: “The Delta strain is not fully understood, but we know for sure that young people and children began to get sick more, although the elderly are also at risk.”
June 28: “It is obvious that we are dealing with a new strain, more infectious and with a higher probability of death. As you can see, the consequences are dire”; July 20: “It is wrong to talk about the greater mortality of the Indian strain of coronavirus, the relative lethality from it is lower than in the spring of 2020.”
And so on and so forth. Within a week, even the suggestion that Moscow was being hammered by a “modified” Indian strain was modified: a consensus quickly formed that it was actually the same Indian strain that had been floating around for months.
There was also new clarity on the legality of compulsory vaccination: although the Russian government had spent the last several months insisting that mandatory inoculation was impossible and illegal, the policy was now viewed as a powerful new weapon in the fight against Covid-19.
“We have a large number of tools in our hands to stop the spread [of coronavirus]... A new tool is compulsory immunization of risk groups, [which] has been introduced in Moscow,” Popova said on June 18.
The situation was dire and all necessary measures were being taken to halt the transmission of the virus: over the next ten days, Russia would resume flights with the United States, Italy, Belgium, Bulgaria, Jordan, Ireland, Cyprus, and North Macedonia, the government announced on June 18. Regular air traffic would be restored with Turkey on June 22, and the number of flights to destinations such as Greece, Austria, Croatia, Qatar and Switzerland would be increased on a reciprocal basis.
The next day, on June 19, Labor Minister Anton Kotyakov caused incalculable harm to the mandatory public health drive by suggesting that it was unlawful for employers to fire employees who didn’t want to get the jab.
“Today, we do not have an opportunity to dismiss for this [refusal to vaccinate] in the Labor Code. The labor legislation does not currently provide for such norms,” Kotyakov said.
Kotyakov later clarified that workers can be suspended indefinitely without pay for refusing to get vaccinated.
"If the region has a sanitary doctor's order on the compulsory vaccination for certain categories of workers, then an unvaccinated employee can be removed," he explained.
According to the Kremlin, vaccination continued to be completely voluntary in Moscow. The “principle” of non-obligatory vaccination was “generally” still in place, but not enough Russians were getting vaccinated, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on June 17. A week later he insisted that inoculation remained a personal choice because “you can change your job.”
Voluntary compulsory immunization wasn’t the only “new tool” employed by Russian authorities during this time. Starting on June 28, Muscovites who wanted to dine indoors needed to have a government-issued QR code showing that they were “Covid-free.” Under the scheme, those who were fully vaccinated, or had recovered from the virus over the past 6 months, or were able to produce a negative PCR test from the last 72 hours, were granted entry to bars and restaurants. Outdoor seating was still available to those without digital health passes.
The targeted restriction was described as “necessary to keep people alive,” even as the rest of the city continued to function normally. As per tradition, Muscovites packed into standing-room-only suburban trains and metro cars as they carried on with their largely uninterrupted lives. The Russian capital remained open, except now indoor dining was more exclusive. It’s unclear how many lives the QR codes saved, but the policy was extremely effective at destroying businesses: in less than 3 weeks, almost 200 restaurants went belly up after their clientele evaporated.
A miraculous three weeks
On July 16, Sobyanin announced that Moscow had seen a precipitous decline in Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations over the past several weeks thanks to “mass vaccination” and the introduction of “restrictive measures.”
The miraculous turnaround meant that beginning on July 19, QR codes would no longer be compulsory for indoor dining. The situation was so promising that 6,000 hospital beds reserved for Covid-19 patients were returned to regular operations.
The compulsory vaccination regime would continue, but the city had met its first target: more than 2 million people had received the first component of the vaccine since the start of the campaign on June 16, the mayor said. In the past 30 days, more people had received their first dose than in the previous 6 months combined.
Sputnik V (officially known as Gam-COVID-Vac) is a two-dose vaccine, with the second component administered after a 3-week interval. A full-fledged defense against Covid-19 forms 42 days after receiving the first dose – assuming both shots are given. Russian authorities have been quite insistent on this point.
“As a rule, immunity is developed approximately on the 42nd day after the first injection,” StopCoronavirus.rf, Russia’s official Covid-19 portal, wrote at the start of the nationwide inoculation drive in December, citing the Gamaleya Institute. The government-operated site states on its FAQ page that for those fully vaccinated with Sputnik V, immunity is formed on the 42nd day after the first shot.
Anna Popova, the head of Rospotrebnadzor, Russia’s consumer protection agency, has also repeatedly stressed that it takes 6 weeks to build immunity against the virus.
“Before the 42nd day after the first [injection]... you cannot consider yourself protected,” Popova said on March 12.
Her agency later published guidance urging people not to let down their guard after getting the jab.
“A full immune response to the vaccine will be formed in 35-42 days, therefore, after vaccination during this period, all precautions must be taken so as not to become infected with the coronavirus,” reads a statement dated June 30 on Rospotrebnadzor’s website.
On July 23 – a week after Sobyanin suggested that 30 days of “mass vaccination” had significantly reduced cases and hospitalizations – Russian Health Minister Mikhail Murashko reminded his countrymen that immunity comes 42 days after getting the first shot.
"It is necessary to take care of yourself during this period," the minister stressed. "Let's gain time, let's be patient, let's all get vaccinated together, wait for that period.”
While fully developed immunity is ideal, partially-formed resistance is better than nothing. Sputnik V typically begins to produce antibodies in recipients within 3 weeks of the first dose, some studies have shown. One way to approximate the benefits of one dose of Sputnik V is to examine data from Sputnik Light, which is the first component of the 2-dose vaccine. According to Sputnik V’s website, Sputnik Light is 79.4% effective at stopping infection 28 days after injection.
But there are conflicting claims about how much protection a single shot actually gives. A study published in July found that 42% of research participants without preexisting antibodies failed to develop a measurable immune response after the first dose of Sputnik V, while 16% contracted symptomatic Covid-19 just before or shortly after the second shot.
“This highlights the importance of getting a second dose of the vaccine… [it is] vital not to assume that individuals after their first dose are fully protected,” the study concluded.
More recent research determined that one dose of Sputnik V provides virtually no protection against severe infection. In August, the “first independent assessment” of Sputnik V’s effectiveness in Russia found that partial vaccination (defined as 14 days after the first dose) had no “statistically significant” effect on preventing Covid-19 hospitalizations.
(While the vast majority of vaccinated Russians have been jabbed with Sputnik V, two other vaccines, EpiVacCorona and CoviVac, have also been used in Moscow’s vaccination drive. However, due to limited supplies, the city no longer offers them. EpiVacCorona has two components which are administered 2-3 weeks apart. Immunity is formed 42 days after the first vaccination. CoviVac is also a two-dose drug, with the second component given after an interval of 14-21 days. According to its developers, the vaccine becomes 70% effective within two weeks after the second injection. Starting on June 27, Moscow also began offering Sputnik Light, a one-dose vaccine, to migrant workers and other foreign citizens. Peak effectiveness occurs around 28 days after the shot is administered. By July 11, around 68,000 foreigners had been vaccinated with Sputnik Light.)
To summarize: one dose might provide a limited level of protection after 3 weeks, while immunity typically requires both shots, and 42 days, to fully develop.
But if we accept this premise – which is consistent with the Russian government’s own claims about Sputnik V’s efficacy – it’s difficult to understand how compulsory vaccination could significantly reduce cases and hospitalizations over a 30-day period.
The Russian government does not publish regularly updated data showing total hospitalizations, or even the number of hospital beds made available to Covid-19 patients. But on July 30, Sobyanin released a chart showing bed occupancy figures (the chart was updated on August 13).
According to Sobyanin’s own data, total hospitalizations had stabilized by June 27 and began an almost continuous decline on July 5.
Even if all 2 million newly vaccinated Muscovites had received their first shot on June 16, measurable levels of antibodies would not appear until 3 weeks later, on July 7. In this scenario, full immunity would kick in on July 28 – two weeks after Sobyanin announced that “mass vaccination” had rescued the city’s healthcare system.
Needless to say, 2 million people did not get the vaccine on the first day of the inoculation program. The number was closer to 20,000.
In other words: on the earliest possible date (July 7) that new vaccinations (10-30 thousand) could have had even a minor effect, total hospitalizations were already dropping (July 5), having stabilized more than a week earlier (June 27). It is logical to suggest that new vaccinations were responsible for this epidemiological u-turn?
Sobyanin actually made an even more fanciful claim: the mayor alleged that mandatory QR codes for indoor dining – a policy that began on June 28 and was canceled less than 3 weeks later – led to more Muscovites being vaccinated, and also reduced contact between the city’s residents. As a result, Covid-19 cases plummeted, he suggested.
Around 70% of the 2 million Muscovites who received their first dose during the first 30 days of the compulsory vaccination program got the shot after June 27. So in this sense, he is correct that more people started getting vaccinated after the QR code rule was introduced.
But this fact only underscores why it’s unlikely that vaccination had any meaningful role in reducing infections in the city: anyone vaccinated on June 28 would only begin producing measurable levels of antibodies on July 19 – two weeks after total hospitalizations began a nearly uninterrupted drop on July 5. Remember: according to the Russian government, 42 days are needed to form full-fledged immunity. This means that if you got your first shot on June 28, you wouldn’t receive full protection until August 9.
How can the Russian government’s own science be reconciled with Sobyanin’s claims? Recall what Health Minister Murashko said on July 23, when discussing the 42 days needed to build immunity: "Let's gain time, let's be patient, let's all get vaccinated together, wait for that period.”
The truth is that the “Delta surge” had already run out of steam by the time Moscow introduced compulsory vaccination. Another chart provided by Sobyanin shows that weekly cases had peaked by June 20, just 4 days after the start of the mandatory inoculation regime. Hospital admissions rose slightly the following week but were already on the decline during the 7-day period starting on June 28:
As for Sobyanin’s assertion that his short-lived QR code regime played a meaningful role in reducing transmission: how? The entire city was open. Restaurants and bars may have been “Covid-free” (they probably weren’t, but that’s a different discussion), but the rest of the city was Covid-everywhere.
There were even exemptions to the rule that may have actually increased transmission in some cases. Hotel bars and restaurants, as well as cafeterias for companies and educational institutions, were allowed to continue operating without QR codes as long as such establishments only served “authorized” customers. This loophole led to predictable results: the places that didn’t require QR codes saw a significant uptick in revenue, suggesting that for 3 weeks, unvaccinated foot traffic was concentrated among a select group of eateries. Isn’t this what Sobyanin was trying to avoid?
A restaurant capable of providing socially distanced indoor seating had to obey the QR edict, while a busier-than-usual canteen – where large groups of people line up with trays as they slowly select their lunch – was free to continue indoor operations unimpeded. Is it logical to suggest that such a policy would lead to a decrease in transmission?
And if excluding unvaccinated people from (some) indoor dining is highly effective at stopping the spread of coronavirus, surely the number of total occupied hospital beds would see an abrupt spike after the policy was dropped on July 19? Instead, total hospitalizations fell by 400 on July 20 and continued to rapidly decrease, even as unvaccinated people were pouring back into restaurants.
Pinning the blame on the washed-up Delta strain
Before we proceed further, it is necessary to briefly review the Delta strain’s strange journey to becoming the most talked-about flavor of coronavirus.
First identified in India in October 2020, the variant circulated for months without garnering much international interest. The underappreciated “Indian” strain finally received the attention it deserved after the World Health Organization (WHO) listed B.1.617.2 as a “variant of interest” on April 4, 2021. The timing was very interesting: by mid-April, it was begrudgingly accepted that the “highly infectious” British variant, which had provoked border closures and draconian restrictions across the globe, was not linked to more severe illness and did not lead to higher rates of death. The sun was setting on the snooze-fest British strain, while the Indian variant began its rapid ascent to the front page of every trusted newspaper.
Beamed to screens around the world, the harrowing tales that emerged from India in April and May were drenched in innuendo and graphic imagery, while conspicuously deficient in evidence-based analysis.
Even the BBC – which played a prominent role in spreading Indian strain hysteria – had difficulty reconciling its sensational reporting with the actual science.
“Much of the data around the Indian variant is incomplete,” the BBC reported on May 9.
In the same article, the news organization spoke to a virologist who expressed serious doubts over whether the strain was uniquely infectious. “We must not panic,” the medical expert urged.
Another doctor interviewed in the piece pointed out that the Indian variant had been around since late last year, making it unlikely that it was more contagious than other mutations: "If it is driving the wave in India it has taken several months to get to this point which would suggest it's probably less transmissible than the [British] B117 variant.
As unscrupulous media reports began to whip up rumors about the strain being “more transmissible,” the BBC’s health correspondent, Nick Triggle, took a far more dispassionate approach to the issue. On May 18, Triggle penned an article that underscored that far from being an established fact, UK government scientists believed there was only a "realistic possibility" that the Indian strain was more transmissible. Data collected by Public Health England suggested that the variant may actually be “much less infectious than feared.” If you read between the lines, “a more complex picture emerges than the 50% [more contagious] figure which grabbed headlines,” Triggle concluded.
The BBC correspondent also drew attention to the fact that there was a one-week lag between “getting a positive diagnosis from a patient and establishing which variant of the virus caused it.” This creates a number of self-evident obstacles when trying to accurately calculate the transmissibility of a certain variant.
The Russian government also seemed to understand that there was little evidence to suggest that the Indian strain was uniquely dangerous. On May 27, Russia’s official Covid-19 portal published an interview with a senior scientist at Rospotrebnadzor, who spoke about the “most dangerous” mutations and what can be done to protect against them.
The Indian variant only came up once – when the official listed it as one of the strains currently circulating in Russia. The British strain was cited as an example of a “more infectious” variant, while the South African strain was described as a mutation capable of bypassing pre-existing antibodies.
Recall that according to government figures, by June 3 the Indian strain already accounted for nearly 1 in 4 lab-confirmed variant cases in Russia. The South African strain made up only 6% of these cases. If there was anything even slightly alarming about the Indian strain, surely it would take precedence over talking about the South African variant?
At the end of May, the WHO announced that the most prevalent coronavirus variants would be assigned letters of the Greek alphabet. The newly rebranded “Delta” strain certainly sounded more serious, but in reality, it remained no more menacing than Vanilla Covid.
It’s important to note that there has been ample time – almost a full year – to collect data on the Delta strain and study its properties. Perhaps in May there was nothing conclusive, but by August the strain’s unique dangers had been well-established? Not exactly.
On June 27, another Russian government official – again from Rospotrebnadzor – suggested there was no conclusive evidence that the Delta strain was more lethal or severe than other mutations.
"It is difficult to say how dangerous the Indian strain is. Currently, it is only clear that it is more infectious. One case in India, for example, could infect six," Natalya Pshenichnaya, a deputy director at Rospotrebnadzor’s Central Research Institute of Epidemiology, told Russia’s state-run news agency TASS.
The BBC was even more reserved in an updated assessment of the Delta strain published on August 2. The variant has “potentially important” mutations that “might make it spread more easily,” the British public broadcaster reported. At the same time, “there is no evidence to indicate it causes more severe disease.”
And although politicians and media outlets have worked tirelessly to suggest otherwise, the WHO has repeatedly stressed that there is absolutely no evidence that the Delta strain is exceptionally deadly.
“In terms of people who are infected with this variant it has not yet translated into increased mortality,” Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s Covid-19 technical lead, said while commenting on Delta during a July 30 press briefing.
Apparently, Sobyanin never got the memo.
“It is obvious that we are dealing with a new strain, more infectious and with a higher probability of death. As you can see, the consequences are dire,” Moscow’s mayor claimed on June 28, after alleging that the Delta strain was causing the vast majority of Covid-19 infections in the city.
Around the same time, Russia reported its first “Delta-plus” case. Vedomosti – Russia’s equivalent of the Wall Street Journal – explained on June 25 that “Delta-plus” was “so contagious that it can be instantly transmitted from passer-by to passer-by on the street if they are not wearing masks.”
Miraculously, Russia has managed to contain the hyper-transmissible variant to just two confirmed cases. By the end of July, “Delta-plus” had seemingly vanished, perhaps becoming a “hypothetical phenomenon” like the Moscow strain.
A curiously timed nosocomial outbreak
But if the Delta strain isn’t extremely dangerous, what caused Moscow’s surge in Covid-related hospitalizations?
It is unthinkable that a government that spent half a decade fabricating mortality rates would misreport the total number of occupied hospital beds, particularly because this information is only revealed intermittently when authorities deem it appropriate to share public health data with the public. So what else could have caused the dramatic spike in severe Covid-related illness?
As Moscow’s Health Department readily acknowledged: already hospitalized patients who later tested positive for Covid-19.
Two days after the start of the compulsory vaccination regime, the city’s health department announced that Moscow’s hospitals would not provide routine treatment to patients who were unvaccinated. Emergency care would still be offered regardless of vaccination status.
The reason for the policy change was that every day, more than 100 hospital patients were being transferred to Covid-19 wards after testing positive for the virus. The spread of a disease in a medical care setting – known as nosocomial transmission – is remarkably common. In July, the Telegraph reported that nosocomial transmission may account for more than half of England’s Covid-related hospitalizations. Internal NHS data suggested that most of England’s Covid-19 patients are hospitalized with other ailments before testing positive, the paper revealed.
Similarly, by mid-June Moscow’s hospitals had become Covid-19 super-spreaders.
“A person who is in a hospital, due to illness that caused the hospitalization, has a weakened immune system… After surgery, in case of infection, the risk of serious complications, up to and including death, increases sharply. And the statistics confirm this. Every day, patients are transferred from Moscow clinics to covid hospitals. If a week ago there were 130 such cases per day, then yesterday it was almost 200,” the Moscow Health Department explained in a statement released on June 18.
Almost 200 daily nosocomial infections are nothing to sneeze at. Sobyanin disclosed on June 17 that over the past week, around 200-300 beds had been “eaten up” each day. The upward trend continued for another ten days before total hospitalizations plateaued on June 27.
This tells us that nosocomial infections accounted for a large percentage of daily excess hospitalizations in mid-to-late June. On some days, already-hospitalized patients who later tested positive for Covid-19 likely made up more than 50% of the daily increase in total bed occupancy. Judging by the data from June 19 to June 27, it’s reasonable to assume that on certain days, nosocomial infections were responsible for almost all excess Covid-19 hospitalizations in Moscow.
With already-hospitalized patients making up a large portion (perhaps a majority) of excess bed occupancy in June, questions about the prudence and necessity of widescale mandatory vaccination emerge. If transmission within medical facilities was tipping the scales, then surely this was an issue requiring a targeted response, instead of a blanket policy affecting millions of people.
Taking the gloves off
By the end of July, the situation with Covid-19 in Moscow had improved so much that Sobyanin decided residents would no longer be required to wear gloves while shopping or riding public transport. Dropping the rule would bring the city one step closer to a “return to normal life,” Sobyanin declared. (Curiously, he said almost the exact same thing when he issued the mandatory glove decree in May 2020: “We are not increasing restrictions, but, on the contrary, are taking a huge step towards returning to ordinary life.”)
But for most Muscovites, “ordinary life” never went away: the glove rule had been almost universally ignored since its inception.
On May 14, 2021, a group of Moscow business leaders wrote a letter to Sobyanin noting that the “vast majority” of the city’s residents did not wear gloves. Describing the staggering level of noncompliance as a “mass phenomenon,” the letter begged the mayor to make masks and gloves voluntary, arguing that the rule was unenforceable.
The letter’s authors also pointed to the “lack of data on infection in the absence of gloves,” citing World Health Organization guidance which recommended regular hand-washing over glove use. In fact, the WHO warned that wearing gloves for extended periods could actually accelerate the spread of germs.
Meanwhile, businesses were incurring fines because they weren’t aggressively enforcing universally ignored rules that had no proven benefit.
The mayor rejected their appeal – likely because, according to him, nearly all residents were dutifully shielding their hands with protective plastic when required to do so. 70% of Muscovites were wearing gloves in the metro, according to an official estimate released in April.
Besides, gloves were highly effective at protecting against coronavirus. One of Sobyanin’s deputies insisted during an interview in May that the requirement was saving lives.
“After all, masks, gloves [and social] distancing help save lives – this is already a proven fact,” Aleksey Nemeryuk, Sobyanin’s first deputy chief of staff, claimed.
After Sobyanin dropped the glove rule on July 30, Russia’s state-run news agency TASS interviewed a virologist who claimed wearing gloves did not affect the spread of coronavirus, and canceling their mandatory use in the summer was even useful.
"Due to the lack of gloves, there is no increase in the incidence in any region. Therefore, the abolition of [mandatory] wearing of gloves is not significant at the moment. On the contrary, it is very difficult to wear gloves in the summer," the doctor told TASS. She added that especially during warmer months, gloves can lead to the appearance of skin diseases.
Like the Delta strain, it seems disposable gloves have constantly changing properties. One day they’re life-savers, the next day they’re incubators of disease.
But unlike the Delta strain, determining the frequency of glove use doesn’t require special lab analysis. There is no way to independently verify case numbers or hospitalizations – providing a certain amount of wiggle room for the Russian government’s impeccable statisticians – but there happens to be a reliable method of assessing whether gloves were commonly worn in the Moscow metro.
Sobyanin’s administration claimed that 70% of Moscow metro passengers were wearing gloves in April. What does the photographic evidence show, though? If this figure is accurate, photographs taken inside the city’s metro over the past year should confirm that a substantial number – if not a vast majority – of commuters were donning gloves. This should be especially true of any photos from April:
These photographs contain at least 30 pairs of visible hands in total. How many are gloved? One, maybe two? This is not what you would expect if the glove rule had been widely obeyed.
Below is a photograph from April 26 showing a metro employee checking for mask and glove compliance. Out of 6 people whose hands are clearly visible, only one passenger is wearing gloves – and you can see that he’s hurriedly putting them on as the enforcement officer approaches. Even when authorities were on the prowl, compliance was less than 17%.
And here’s Sobyanin at the opening of a new metro station on April 1, setting an example by not wearing gloves or a mask:
Sobyanin’s now-defunct glove regime is emblematic of the “public health” measures that have been imposed upon Muscovites since the arrival of Covid-19: It was a policy based on empty claims and reinforced by obscene assertions irreconcilable with observable reality.
What happens when a government enforces a narrative built on data that has no connection to the real world? Who ends up footing the bill?
It’s clear Muscovites know the answer to this question. With parliamentary elections looming, United Russia – the party of Sergey Sobyanin and doctor-turned-statesman Denis Protsenko – is down badly in the polls.
After more than a year of being frog-marched through a labyrinth of shape-shifting epidemiology, the city’s residents seem to have had enough.
Muscovites have returned to ordinary life. Will the “experts” accept this, or will they choose instead to continue forcing their vaccine on people who don’t want it, while testing the drug’s efficacy against the Moscow strain and other hypothetical phenomena?
Riley Waggaman is Anti-Empire's Moscow Correspodent and a Russia Insider alumnus. He previously worked for RT.com, Press TV, and various other outlets. Follow him on Twitter: @RileyWaggaman