As Others Rush to Vaccinate, Moscow Lures Takers With Ice Cream

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If the offer of immunity against Covid-19 isn’t enough to lure shoppers to get a vaccination at a tony Moscow shopping mall on Red Square, the organizers have sweetened the deal with free ice cream.

Even so, there were few takers on a recent snowy afternoon for a city-sponsored Sputnik V injection and anyone looking to receive the free Russian shot could get it without a wait.

“Yesterday we had a line of 35 people, but the crowds are cyclical and today the weather’s not in our favor,” said Natalya Kuzentova, the head doctor of the vaccination center, which is open to walk-ins from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. About 300 people get inoculated daily at the mall, according to Kuzentova.

While shortages, confusion and long lines hinder vaccination roll-outs in many countries, the Russian capital is a rare place faced with oversupply. The apparent ease of access masks a difficulty for Russia in persuading people to get inoculated since President Vladimir Putin boasted of registering the world’s first Covid-19 vaccine in August.

After being one of the firstto announce large-scale vaccination in December, Russia now risks falling behind its ambitious goals. Putin has yet to say if he hasreceived a shot. Health Minister Mikhail Murashko said Friday at least 60% of the population should be vaccinated by the middle of the year.

Moscow has opened more than 100 centers in clinics, food courts and even an opera house around the city of 12.7 million in hopes of slowing the spread of Covid-19 by offering the vaccine free to all adult residents.

The vaccination program is progressing “actively” with 12,000 to 15,000 people receiving the inoculation daily, Deputy Mayor Anastasia Rakova said on the state-run Rossiya 24 channel Thursday. So far, 320,000 people in the capital have begun vaccinations and 9,000 have received the second shot, she said.

Those numbers are far below other comparable cities. Health workers in London have administered 777,531 initial doses and nearly 57,000 second shots by Thursday, according to the U.K.’s National Health Service. City authorities in New York said Friday 610,095 first injections and almost 132,000 second doses had been carried out.

Mistrust of officialdom among Russians dating back to the Soviet era and doubts over the authorities’ decision to approve Sputnik V before testing was complete have kept many people away, despite Russia suffering one of the highest Covid-19 tolls globally.

Only 38% of Russians are ready to take Sputnik V, according to a Dec. 21-23 poll conducted by the Levada Center.

The vaccine’s developers, the Gamaleya National Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology and the Russian Direct Investment Fund, haven’t yet published phase 3 trials data in a peer-reviewed western publication.

Information about numbers of Sputnik V vaccinations nationwide is limited. RDIF said more than 1.5 million people had been inoculated as of Jan. 10, but the government stopped providing regular updates after that figure was questioned.

“Moscow is the only region where the vaccine is readily available,” said Alexander Dragan, an independent data analyst who estimates less than 1% of Russia’s 146 million population will be inoculated by the end of the month. “Even there, the process is too slow, it’s a catastrophe.”

Still, there are signs the pandemic’s second wave has crested in Russia even as many European countries endure new lockdowns. Moscow recorded 2,799 new cases Friday, down from a peak of over 8,000 in late December.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin eased the city’s coronavirus restrictions this week in response, allowing bars and restaurants to remain open all night and dropping a requirement that employers keep at least 30% of their workers at home.

Vaccine take-up is accelerating with as many as 66,000 shots per day administered in Russia now, according to Dragan. Even so, truly mass vaccination won’t start before April under the “best-case scenario,” he said.

— With assistance by Gem Atkinson

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