VLADIMIR, Russia (Reuters) – Alexander tried three times over 10 days to get his first dose of Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine in his home town of Vladimir. Twice, supplies ran out as he was standing in the queue.
“People line up from 4 a.m. although the centre opens at 10 a.m.,” the 33-year-old said, as he finally entered the walk-in vaccination room in the town, where gold-domed medieval churches attract crowds of tourists in normal years.
A third wave of COVID-19 infections has lifted reported daily deaths in Russia to record highs in recent weeks, and sluggish demand for vaccines from a wary population has finally begun to grow with a big official push to boost uptake.
The switch poses a challenge for Russia, which has signed contracts to supply Sputnik V to countries around the world.
With vaccination now compulsory in some Russian regions for people working in close contact with the public, such as waiters and taxi drivers, shortages have appeared.
“At the last minute we all decided to get vaccinated at the same time,” Maria Koltunova, a representative of the Vladimir regional health watchdog Rospotrebnadzor told reporters on July 16. “This has caused a problem.”
The Kremlin last month blamed vaccine shortages in some regions on increasing demand and storage difficulties but said these would be resolved.
At the appointment desks of four clinics in different towns in the wider Vladimir region last week, Reuters was told that no shots were available at this time. The earliest appointments available were next month and none could give a date.
The industry ministry said it was working with the health ministry to close the demand gap in places where it had jumped. The health ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
Russia is producing 30 million sets of doses per month, the industry ministry said, and can gradually scale that up to a monthly figure of 40-45 million doses over the next few months.
Overall, almost 44 million full doses of all vaccines have been released for the vaccination of Russia’s 144 million people, the industry minister said last week.
Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin ordered the government on Monday to check what vaccines were available.
Russia does not provide data for vaccine exports and the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), responsible for marketing the vaccine abroad, declined to comment.
A laboratory in India said last week the country’s full rollout would have to be put on hold until the Russian producer provides equal quantities of its two doses, which are different sizes.
Argentina and Guatemala have also reported delays to promised supplies.
Despite launching its vaccine rollout in January and approving four homegrown vaccines for domestic use, Russia had given only around 21% of its entire population one shot by July 9, according to data provided by Health Minister Mikhail Murashko, although counting only adults, that would be higher.
The Kremlin earlier blamed “nihilism” among the population; some Russians have cited distrust, both of new drugs and government programmes.
Around 14% of the 1.4 million people in the Vladimir region 200 km (125 miles) east of Moscow had received one shot by July 19, data provided by local officials showed.
Many locals were previously reluctant to get vaccinated for various reasons, including an erroneous understanding of antibodies, confusion sown by anti-vaxxers and ‘fake news’, the regional health department told Reuters.
The sudden uptick in demand for shots was due to a third wave of coronavirus, the vaccine shortage and a spate of government measures, authorities said.
These included a week-long regional requirement to prove vaccination against, or recent recovery from, COVID-19 with QR codes to enter cafes and other venues. The policy was cancelled amid an outcry from business and vaccine shortages.
The region also ordered some public sector and service industry businesses to inoculate at least 60% of their employees with one dose by August 15.
Third-time lucky vaccine recipient Alexander, who gave only his first name due to the sensitivity of the issue, said he had queued for the shot of his own accord after his local clinic said it could not offer one until late August.
But nine out of 12 people approached by Reuters at the city’s vaccination centres said they did not want to be vaccinated but had been pressured by their employers. The local governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the pressure.
The regional health department said it was working in universities, companies, and shopping centres to try to persuade people to get vaccinated.
In one Vladimir café called ZZZed, owner Alexander Yuriev had, along with officials, set up a centre for vaccinations, starting with the city’s restaurant workers. People filled out their consent forms sitting at the bar, under a disco ball.
“We have a queue now of about 1,000 people,” Yuriev said, adding: “We are limited by the lack of vaccines in the region.”
The regional administration’s press office said more than 18,000 people were on a waiting list for vaccinations as of July 21. The region had received 12,000 doses over the weekend and was waiting for almost 11,000 more, it said.
(Reporting by Polina Nikolskaya; editing by Polina Ivanova, Josephine Mason, Philippa Fletcher and Gareth Jones)