Russian President Vladimir Putin said this week his country managed to stop the mass spread of coronavirus – and that the situation was “under control,” thanks to early and aggressive measures to keep more people from getting the disease.
Does Russia have coronavirus under control? According to information released by Russian officials, Putin’s strategy seems to have worked. The number of confirmed Russian coronavirus cases is surprisingly low, despite Russia sharing a lengthy border with China and recording its first case back in January.
The numbers are picking up, but Russia – a country of 146 million people – has fewer confirmed cases than Luxembourg, with just 253 people infected. Luxembourg, by contrast, has a population of just 628,000, according to the CIA World Factbook, and by Saturday had reported 670 coronavirus cases with eight deaths.
Russia’s early response measures – such as shutting down its 2,600-mile border with China as early as January 30, and setting up quarantine zones – may have contributed to the delay of a full-blown outbreak, some experts say.
A strong record on testing
“The director-general of WHO said ‘test, test, test,’” Dr. Melita Vujnovic, the World Health Organization’s representative in Russia, told CNN Thursday. “Well, Russia started that literally at the end of January.”
Vujnovic said Russia also took a broader set of measures in addition to testing.
“Testing and identification of cases, tracing contacts, isolation, these are all measures that WHO proposes and recommends, and they were in place all the time,” she said. “And the social distancing is the second component that really also started relatively early.”
Rospotrebnadzor, Russia’s state consumer watchdog, said Saturday that it had run more than 156,000 coronavirus tests in total. By comparison, according to CDC figures, the United States only picked up the pace in testing at the beginning of March, while Russia says it has been testing en masse since early February, including in airports, focusing on travelers from Iran, China, and South Korea.
That’s not to say there were no holes in Russia’s defenses. Russia didn’t start testing those arriving from Italy or other badly affected EU countries immediately, limiting its controls for arrivals from Europe to taking temperatures and imposing two-week quarantines. The majority of the coronavirus cases reported in Russia were brought from Italy, according to health officials.
Distrust among the population
Still, Russia contends with widespread public skepticism, a legacy of its Soviet past. On social media, Russians have raised questions referring to their country’s poor track record of transparency, such as the coverup around the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe in 1986 and the country’s botched response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
Authorities have moved swiftly to counter what they see as misinformation. In early March, Russia’s Federal Security Service and internet watchdog moved to take down a viral post claiming the real number of coronavirus cases was 20,000 and that the Russian government was covering it up. Facebook and Instagram users in Russia then started to see coronavirus awareness alerts linking to Rospotrebnadzor’s official website.
News reports of shortages in protective equipment have also fueled skepticism. And some experts have raised doubts about the reliability of Russia’s testing system, which depends on a single laboratory. A report by PCR.News, a media outlet for medics and healthcare professionals, pointed out that the only approved coronavirus testing system, produced by Vector in Novosibirsk, has a lower sensitivity than other virus tests, raising concerns about false negatives.
David Berov, the first confirmed coronavirus patient in Moscow, wrote on Instagram that his second test showed a negative result, while the first and third tested positive for coronavirus.
“The virus was confirmed in my third test, it was not seen in my blood but was in my saliva,” Berov wrote on March 5. “As I was told, they could barely see it so that’s why they were in doubt for so long.”
Vector did not respond to a request for comment. The Russian branch of the WHO, however, told CNN it received the sp