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Russia faces challenge to convince public over Covid vaccination push



When factory worker Viktoria Marchenko fell ill with Covid-19 this month, the surge in cases in her hometown of Gatchina outside St Petersburg meant she had to fight for days to get adequate medical attention.

But as Ms Marchenko recuperates at home, the experience has only hardened her resolve not to get vaccinated.

“Honestly, I don’t believe in Russian medicine and all these vaccines, because I don’t trust our government to make things better,” Ms Marchenko said.

Russia rolled out its mass vaccination programme with Sputnik V, manufactured by the state-run Gamaleya Institute, last weekend in an effort to help stem the country’s daily tide of more than 26,000 coronavirus infections.

The Kremlin is touting the vaccine as an international breakthrough. Its manufacturers say they have fielded demand to produce doses for 1.2bn people internationally next year.

Though the vaccine has yet to complete phase 3 trials, president Vladimir Putin said Sputnik V was “quite effective” when he approved it for use in August.

The vaccine’s manufacturers say they have fielded demand to produce doses for 1.2bn people internationally next year © Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

The Gamaleya Institute said interim data from the trials showed the vaccine’s efficacy was 92 per cent — on a par with western competitors from Moderna, Oxford university and AstraZeneca, and Pfizer/BioNTech, which are also still undergoing phase 3 trials. On Friday, AstraZeneca said it would partner with the Gamaleya Institute to test whether their respective jabs could be combined.

At a clinic in the Butovo district on the outskirts of Moscow, Natalia Isakova, a hospital receptionist, said she had decided to get the vaccine out of a sense of responsibility. “Russia has lots of good scientists who have done vaccines, so why not? If there were any problems with it they wouldn’t release it.”

Vladimir Leksin, a municipal services worker, said after receiving the first of two shots that he thought word of mouth would convince more people to get vaccinated. “I know people who don’t believe in the vaccine. But they haven’t had it,” he said. “Everyone who did it feels better.”

The Kremlin’s challenge, however, is convincing 70 per cent of Russia’s 143m population — who Sputnik V’s manufacturers say must be inoculated to stop the virus spreading — that the vaccine is safe and effective.

A deep-rooted suspicion of authority and the proliferation of anti-vaccine content online mean 61 per cent of Russians do not trust official data on coronavirus, while 59 per cent do not plan to get the vaccine, according to a poll by the independent Levada Center in November.

By comparison, only 26 per cent of Americans in an AP poll this week said they would not get vaccinated.

Kirill Dmitriev, chief executive of the state-run Russian Direct Investment Fund, which is funding Sputnik V, told the Financial Times that a more recent survey to be published next week showed 42 per cent of Russians were willing to take the vaccine.

Gamaleya Institute director Alexander Gintsburg said on Thursday that Russia had already vaccinated 150,000 people, which he claimed was the most of any country worldwide.

A few days into Moscow’s vaccination programme, mayor Sergei Sobyanin said 6,000 people had received the first dose of the two-shot jab — amounting to about 17 per day at the 70 clinics offering the vaccine — while a further 14,000 had signed up.

Mr Dmitriev said that Russia had a “backlog of millions of people” who wanted to get vaccinated, many from large state-owned enterprises who wanted to buy doses for their employees en masse.

In Russia, doctors and teachers are eligible to receive the jab first, rather than the elderly. But several people said they managed to get vaccinated despite not being part of the prioritised groups.

“I’m just a regular mom on maternity leave. I signed up an hour before the vaccine, went to the clinic, and they did everything,” Muscovite Daria Sakharova wrote in a Telegram group chat where hundreds of people who received the vaccine compare symptoms and results. “I’m not a doctor or a teacher and I’m not chronically ill — I just sit at home with my kid.”

The vaccine has been particularly popular among members of Russia’s political and business elite, some of whom volunteered for early access to it and publicly urged people to sign up.

Though Mr Putin has not been vaccinated himself, enough senior figures in the elite have already had the jab that their underlings have rushed to join them in the hope of retaining personal access, according to three senior businessmen who received the vaccine this year.

One person with close ties to the security services said so many officials had been vaccinated that they would begin meetings by showing off how many Covid-19 antibodies their bosses had.

“A lot of the elite would rather die of the vaccine than of the virus. It’s probably not going to kill you,” said a senior state banker. “When the big people in big offices do it, then lots of others follow suit.”

Sputnik V’s backers have fumed at the criticism from some western experts who say the Gamaleya Institute has not released enough trial data.

“The whole discussion has been that Russia’s a mouldy backwater where there’s no way you can produce a vaccine,” said Dmitry Kulish, a professor at private science university Skoltech.

On Friday, Russia’s defence ministry, which has also begun vaccinating the armed forces, claimed to have uncovered a foreign “information sabotage” plot to discredit the vaccine.

The vaccine has also come under criticism from three Russian scientists who wrote an open letter in November criticising the Gamaleya Institute for not sharing enough data and starting vaccination before clinical trials are concluded.

The scientists said the race to keep up with western manufacturers made Sputnik V a “hostage” to geopolitics and warned that it would harm “the safe testing of the vaccine”.

Mr Dmitriev said he believed “some people are afraid of the power of our vaccine” and were working to “paint it in dark colours”. He added: “But obviously it doesn’t work, because we have efficiency at over 90 per cent.”

Additional reporting by Donato Paolo Mancini in Rome

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Emerging Markets

A harrowing brush with Covid as India is ravaged




As a foreign correspondent, my job is to tell India’s stories, not be part of them. But when I started feeling feverish while writing an article about Covid-19 vaccine policy last month, I had a gut feeling that the Sars-Cov-2 virus had found me.

I hoped it was exhaustion that I’d sleep off but the next day, still feverish, I was urged to take a Covid test. A leading diagnostic lab chain, which earlier had run an efficient home-testing service, had stopped answering its phones and responding to online requests. But a doctor friend persuaded one of the lab’s phlebotomists to collect my sample. Two days later, the results confirmed I was part of the ferocious coronavirus wave battering India and pushing its healthcare system to breaking point.

Over the following days, my physical symptoms remained mild. But it was still harrowing to be sick from a notoriously unpredictable virus knowing that drugs, hospital beds and oxygen were scarce. I suffered constant anxiety knowing I’d struggle to get medical help if I took a turn for the worse.

I quickly discovered that I’d been so focused on avoiding infection that I had no clue what to do once sick. A friend connected me to a Kolkata-based infectious disease specialist, who felt I was at low risk for severe illness. I’d had the first dose of a Covid vaccine 10 days before my fever started. But the doctor urged me to treat the illness aggressively from the start, given the chaos at hospitals.

He prescribed the antiviral drug, favipiravir, now undergoing clinical trials in the UK as a potential Covid-19 therapy but already approved in India for emergency use. Many of his patients had taken it, he said, and none suffered severely, including people in their 90s.

Normally, I’m reluctant to medicate. I knew favipiravir’s effectiveness as a coronavirus treatment wasn’t yet scientifically validated. But with hospitals turning away ailing patients, the logic of taking an experimental drug made sense. The challenge, I discovered, was to get hold of it.

I called five pharmacies, but all had run out of stock. A friend called six more to no avail. I panicked — the doctor wanted me to start the drug fast and Delhi was hours from the start of a weekend curfew. Then a friend, who’d heard I was Covid-19 positive, called.

“I’m looking for this drug,” I told her. “Any idea where I can get it?” She said she’d check. It turned out that people with foresight had prepared small emergency drug stashes. Her friend had such a stash and was willing to share it.

I was elated to get the pills to start treatment that night. But it wasn’t enough for the prescribed course. Days later I spent hours calling pharmacies in an unsuccessful hunt for more, before finally begging an industry friend to help.

My difficulties pale in comparison with the desperation, anger and grief beyond my sickroom. My Twitter feed was filled with pleas for hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, the antiviral remdesivir, plasma or a place in an intensive care unit. Top hospitals begged on Twitter for refills of dwindling oxygen supplies. Friends and many professional contacts were fighting for their lives. Doctor friends were weeping with impotent rage.

There was much grim news of death. A former Indian ambassador died after hours waiting in a hospital parking lot for admission; inpatients whose oxygen ran out; a top politician’s 34-year-old son, young journalists. Crematoriums struggled with an unprecedented flow of bodies.

I decided I had to tune out of the unfolding crisis, to ensure my physical recovery and to protect my mental health. I stopped checking Twitter. Newspapers piled up, unread.

Once I felt better and tuned back, I saw Narendra Modi’s government had cynically expanded eligibility for vaccination to all over the age of 18, despite an acute shortage of jabs.

And with thousands dying daily, often for want of medical help, the health minister was callously citing dubious official data to claim India’s Covid fatality rate was lower than richer countries — hardly consolation to grief-stricken families.

Today, I’ve recovered from my encounter with the virus. It will take far longer to get over the trauma of watching this calamity engulf the place I call home.

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Indian foreign minister self-isolates after Covid cases detected in G7 delegation




India’s foreign minister on Wednesday said that he was self-isolating after two members of the country’s delegation to the G7 meetings in London tested positive for coronavirus.

The face-to-face meetings in the UK capital began on Monday and are scheduled to end on Wednesday. Representatives from G7 countries such as Canada, Germany and France are attending alongside Australia and India as the UK seeks to strengthen its ties within the Indo-Pacific region.

Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s external affairs minister, confirmed on Twitter that he was informed on Tuesday evening that he had been exposed to a possible Covid-19 case.

“As a measure of abundant caution and also out of consideration for others, I decided to conduct my engagements in the virtual mode,” he added. It is understood that the rest of the Indian delegation will self- isolate for the remainder of the G7 meetings.

Jaishankar held a socially distanced meeting with UK home secretary Priti Patel on Tuesday, where two agreed on a “migration and mobility deal” which will provide a “bespoke route” for young professionals from India looking to live and work in the UK. He met Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, earlier this week.

“We deeply regret that foreign minister Jaishankar will be unable to attend the meeting today in person,” a senior UK diplomat said. “(He) will now attend virtually, but this is exactly why we have put in place strict Covid protocols and daily testing.”

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Blinken rejects claims of ‘cold war’ between US and China




America’s top diplomat Antony Blinken has rejected claims the US is entering a cold war with China during a visit to London to discuss with G7 counterparts how best to respond to the challenges posed by Beijing.

In an interview with Financial Times editor Roula Khalaf for The Global Boardroom, Blinken said he resisted “putting labels on most relationships including this one, because it’s complex”.

“This is not about initiating a cold war, this is all about doing our part to make sure that democracy is strong, resilient, and meeting the needs of its people,” he said, referring to Washington’s intention to hold a “democracy summit” later in the year.

Joe Biden, US president, has promised to “win” the 21st century in what he has portrayed as a “battle” between democracies and autocracies and has pointed to Chinese activities that the US says are damaging the international order.

Relations between the US and China deteriorated under the Trump administration and the countries remain at loggerheads over security, human rights, intellectual property, and rules governing trade and commerce.

“We’re not asking countries to choose [between the US and China],” Blinken added in remarks at the FT Live event on Tuesday, which were broadcast after G7 countries opened their meeting with a session on China.

Ahead of the event, a US state department official said the G7 session on Tuesday morning was intended to be a forum to discuss how to work closely with allies and partners to address shared challenges from a position of strength.

Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, far right, is meeting with G7 leaders in London to discuss how best to respond to the challenges posed by Beijing © Stefan Rousseau/Pool/Getty

Blinken said the US recognised that countries have complicated relationships, including with China, and that the US did not believe other countries’ economic relationships with Beijing “need to be cut off or ended”. However, he said the US wanted to foster and protect basic rules governing commerce, the environment, intellectual property and technology.

Biden has surprised many foreign policy experts by taking an approach to China that has more in common than not with the harsh stance taken by former president Donald Trump. One big difference has been a significant effort to work with US allies and partners to create more leverage to deal with Beijing.

His approach has been welcomed by allies in Asia, such as Japan and Australia. But there is concern in the EU about the bloc being caught between the US and China, particularly in Germany.

Angela Merkel, German chancellor, has said the EU and the US do not agree on everything and that it was “absolutely clear” that their interests were “not identical” when it came to China.

The G7 comprises the US, Canada, UK, France, Germany, Italy and Japan, and this year the UK has also invited Australia, India, South Korea, Brunei and South Africa to attend as guests.

Biden recently convened the first leader-level meeting of the Quad — a group that includes the US, Japan, India and Australia — as part of this effort to work with allies to counter Beijing.

Evan Medeiros, professor of Asian studies at Georgetown University, said the Biden team’s engagement with the G7 formed part of its effort to assemble coalitions to tackle the China challenge.

He said the administration was pursuing the right strategy by saying the US did not want a cold war and did not want countries to pick sides, but he added: “The reality is everybody is going to have to make choices when it comes to China.”

But Bonnie Glaser, Asia programme director at the German Marshall Fund of the US, highlighted concerns among some that Washington’s stance was “too aggressive and too confrontational”.

“I definitely have the impression that the Germans and some other Europeans are really quite unhappy about the US approach to China,” she said.

In March, the US, EU, UK and Canada co-ordinated the imposition of sanctions on Chinese officials over the country’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims in the western Xinjiang region, triggering retaliatory sanctions from Beijing.

Biden administration officials including Blinken frame the future of the US relationship with China as “competitive, collaborative and adversarial”, depending on the issue in question.

Washington wants to co-operate with Beijing on foreign policy issues including Iran, North Korea and climate change while also defending US interests in the military, technological and economic spheres and pushing back on human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

Blinken said that “a democratic recession around the world” had occurred over the past 15 years, but admitted the US had its own challenges “visible for the world to see” when it comes to democracy, in a thinly veiled reference to the disputed presidential election and January 6 Capitol attacks.

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