MOSCOW -- Russian doctors and health regulators launched fresh efforts to counter anti-vaxxers on November 24 as Russian authorities announced new versions of the national vaccine, in nasal form and for children, amid a record surge in cases and deaths.
An open letter by leading Russian doctors challenged anti-COVID vaccination politicians and celebrities to visit coronavirus "red zones" at intensive-care units and morgues to see the disease's toll on the country.
Signed by 11 chief physicians of leading hospitals in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Samara, Sochi, Krasnodar, and Khanty-Mansiisk, including members of the ruling United Russia party, the letter said "opponents to vaccination" need to see for themselves how bad the situation has become.
"Hopefully after that you will change your standpoints, and fewer people will die," it said.
Meanwhile, national health regulator Roszdravnadzor told its staff all over the country that they should report medical professionals and other individuals who "deliberately" mislead the public about vaccinations for possible prosecution.
Roszdravnadzor told Reuters it had already reported at least 30 alleged anti-vaxxers who could face up to five years in prison.
The targeting of vaccine opponents comes amid weeks of record-breaking COVID-19 death figures and a surge of infections.
Only around 37 percent of Russia’s nearly 146 million people have been fully vaccinated, even though the country approved the Sputnik V vaccine months before most of the world rolled out other shots.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on November 24 said he had been administered an experimental nasal version of Sputnik V shortly after taking a booster shot over the weekend. He said it was inhaled as a powder through each nostril and that he hadn't experienced any ill effects.
Putin told a government meeting that his antibodies had dropped “exactly six months after vaccination" with Sputnik V and that "specialists recommended the procedure of revaccination, which I did."
The deputy director of the state-financed center that developed Sputnik V, Denis Logunov, told Putin that the nasal version was still due to undergo clinical studies and was mostly being tested so far on staff members at the Gameleya Center.
Later, Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova said the Health Ministry was hours away from registering a new Sputnik M vaccine for people between the ages of 12 and 17.
She said the Sputnik M shots will be available to teens from late December.
The physicians' letter, published by the state news agency TASS and media outlet RBK, was addressed to several leading politicians, along with actors Yegor Beroyev, Oskar Kuchera, and Maria Shukshina; music performers and singers Natalya Vetlitskaya, Katya Lel, Konstantin Kinchev, and Yury Loza, as well as "other opponents of vaccination."
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"We know your position regarding the vaccination of Russian citizens against COVID-19. All of us are busy now, and you probably know why. However, taking into consideration the number of people who read what you say, listen to you, and follow you, we will find time to show you 'the red zones,' intensive care units, and autopsy units at our hospitals," the letter says.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the letter was a "positive" move, backing up several pleas from Putin for Russians to get vaccinated amid daily death totals in recent weeks that consistently top 1,000 people.
"Let's hope that the authority of these doctors will help at least one of those people change their point of view," Peskov said.
Among those mentioned in the letter are actor Yegor Beroyev, who said any restrictions on unvaccinated Muscovites would be similar to how Jews were treated in Nazi Germany.
As of November 24, 9,434,393 coronavirus cases, including 267,819 deaths were officially registered in Russia.