Moscow (CNN)News of the first takers of the desperately awaited Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine spurred some hope and excitement amid new lockdowns and spiraling infections in much of the US and the UK. But in Russia, one of the few countries already offering vaccines to a wider segment of the general public, the turnout in the first two weeks of "large-scale" vaccination has been less than enthusiastic.
Every country has vaccine skeptics. In Russia, doctors are in their ranks
Moscow opened the doors of Russia's first 70 vaccination centers two weeks ago, offering healthcare workers and other crucial groups a shot of Russian-developed vaccine Sputnik V.
Since then, only 15,000 people have been vaccinated, according to Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin. It means that on average, each clinic inoculated about 15 people a day, a fraction of the at least 271,000 people from priority groups vaccinated in the US in the first week.
Online sign-up forms for nine Moscow clinics reviewed by CNN showed plenty of free slots -- even when signing up to get the shot the next day. In two clinics visited by CNN last week, there was no queue for the vaccine, and both institutions had only filled one slot, with five people showing up by midday.
One vial of Sputnik V contains five doses and takes half an hour to defrost, according to the vaccine's instruction. After that, it can't be put back in the freezer and must be discarded if not used, so clinics aim to administer the vaccine to a group of five at a time, according to packaging instructions.
"When I was getting my shot, only two out five people who signed up [for that time slot] showed up," Moscow-based journalist Nikita Sologub tweeted. "The other three defrosted vaccines had to be thrown out."
Sputnik V's first shots in Moscow were primarily allocated for healthcare workers and teachers, but that list quickly expanded to cover other groups, including journalists and transportation workers.
Reports from local independent media also suggest that virtually anyone could sign up to get the vaccine if they fit the health criteria, as paperwork checks for eligibility have apparently been lax.
At this stage, Russia is primarily vaccinating people ages 18-60 without chronic health conditions. Last week, Russian Health Minister Mikhail Murashko announced that all regions are "ready to accept [the vaccine] and vaccinate."
Empty waiting halls in Moscow clinics and wasted shots could be the symptoms of a larger issue Russia will have to face as the vaccination program expands nationwide: widespread mistrust in its vaccine.
Russia approved its first Covid-19 vaccine, Sputnik V, in August after testing it on several dozen people in a study with great fanfare from state TV.
The news of Sputnik V's approval ahead of large-scale Phase 3 trials necessary to test the vaccine's safety and efficacy drew considerable criticism from scientific and medical circles who worried that Russia was short-cutting an established process for political and PR gain.
Sputnik V showed more than 90% efficacy in trials, according to its makers at the Gamaleya National Center of Epidemiology and Biology. But the data they provided has been questioned as well, with some critics saying it may have been rushed out in an effort to keep up with announcements from other vaccine producers who were further ahead in Phase 3 trials, such as the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his government to roll out large-scale vaccination on December 2, hours after the UK authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, signaling it will soon start inoculating en masse.
The name itself, Sputnik V, in honor of the first satellite launched by the Soviet Union, is reminiscent of the USSR's early victory in the space race with the United States.
Vaccine skeptics pose a challenge to most governments looking to vaccinate the majority of their populations to get the coronavirus pandemic under control. In Russia, the very people who could persuade the general public to take the shot are hardly on board, with many health workers wary of the drug.
"At this stage, I'm not ready to get vaccinated, as the Russian vaccine is not transparent, and its effectiveness hasn't been proven," said Viktoria Alexandrova, a general practitioner in Saint Petersburg. "And all of that because of this absurd political race on who's going to get the vaccine faster.
"So maybe i