Virus Cases Surge Again in Russia, Many From Delta Variant

Virus Cases Surge Again in Russia, Many From Delta Variant

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 Mr. Zhukov, 21, a university student. His friend was fine. Two months later, Mr. 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 V. 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 virologists say that the Delta variant, first found in India, is now the most prevalent strain in Moscow. The mayor, Sergey Sobyanin, told local media on Friday that 89.3 percent 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 on 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,” Mr. Sobyanin told a meeting of government officials on Thursday. Mr. Sobyanin suggested that officials had overestimated how long natural immunity from earlier rounds of infection would provide protection.

Across Russia, only 9.9 percent 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 percent 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,” Dr. Vasily V. 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, Mr. 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 percent 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 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 percent of their work force 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 last August before late-stage clinical trials had proven 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.”

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