Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday ordered his government to start large-scale vaccinations against Covid-19 from next week.
Russia became the first country in the world to approve its coronavirus vaccine, Sputnik V, in August, authorizing the treatment for public use even before crucial Phase 3 trials were conducted. The move drew criticism from scientific circles.
On Wednesday Putin, speaking during a televised government meeting, said Russia should begin a widespread vaccination effort.
“Over two million doses have been produced or will have been produced in the next few days. The first registered vaccine against the coronavirus infection in the world, Sputnik V, will reach this level of production. This allows us to begin – if not mass – a large-scale vaccination,” the Russian leader said.
Putin added that the primary focus should be the “vaccination of the two risk groups: of doctors and teachers.”
He was addressing Russia Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova, who is responsible for the country’s coronavirus response.
“If you believe that we are close to this step I would ask you to organize work in a way that by the end of next week we would start this large-scale vaccination,” he told Golikova.
Golikova replied that Russia will be able to start large-scale vaccination in December. She reiterated that the first priority was to inoculate doctors and teachers but added that she was looking at vaccinating larger groups.
“I would like to state again that obviously, it will be voluntary, free of charge for citizens and this week I hope… I’m sure we will finish all the preparations to report that we are ready to start it next week,” Golikova said during the meeting.
Putin replied: “Let’s agree that you will not just report, but will start the large-scale vaccination, okay?”
Health Minister Mikhail Murashko said Wednesday that to date more than 100,000 Russian citizens had already been vaccinated with Sputnik.
Murashko didn’t specify a breakdown of the 100,000 people but phase 3 trials are currently underway which involve more than 40,000 volunteers. More than 20,000 people have received their first dose of Sputnik V as part of the Phase 3 trial, and 16,000 participants have received the second dose, according to the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), which has funded the vaccine.
The vaccine developers have previously said Sputnik-V was administered to a group of 10,000 volunteers from the “red zones” of Russian hospitals in September. Moreover, the Russian military said last week 2,500 servicemen had been vaccinated with more to come by the end of the year.
The jab has already been administered to some Russian frontline health care workers, teachers and several top level officials outside the clinical trials.
Putin’s order to intensify the vaccination program comes after the UK became the first Western country to authorize the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine on Wednesday.