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Russian scientists warn of possible new 'Moscow variant'

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 16/06/2021 Nataliya Vasilyeva, Anne Gulland
a group of people in a room: Medical workers in protective gear talk to a patient in a COVID-19 field hospital in the Sokolniki Exhibition and Convention Centre - Sergei Karpukhin © Sergei Karpukhin Medical workers in protective gear talk to a patient in a COVID-19 field hospital in the Sokolniki Exhibition and Convention Centre - Sergei Karpukhin

Russian authorities are investigating a possible new Covid variant amid a sudden spike in cases. 

On Wednesday the country reported 13,397 new cases - around half of which were in the capital, Moscow - and 396 deaths.

The more transmissible Delta variant - now detected in 74 countries and behind India’s devastating second wave of Covid - has been identified in Russia but there are also fears that a new Moscow variant might be behind the recent spike in cases. 

Denis Logunov, deputy director of the Gamaleya Institute, which developed Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, told the state-owned Russian news agency Tass the capital may “have its own Moscow strains”.  

He said scientists at the institute were monitoring cases.  Authorities have released no information on any new strain and it does not feature on the World Health Organization’s list of variants of interest. 

Alexander Gitsburg, head of the Gamaleya Institute, said on Wednesday that scientists are working to “determine a spectre of variants which are circulating in Moscow: this is not just one Wuhan variant but the mutated Indian one as well.”

The institute said the Russian-made vaccine is less effective against the Delta variant but Dr Gitsburg said the difference in effectiveness “is not critical.”

“Sputnik V triggers a high concentration of antibodies,” he said.

“If a person gets the vaccine, they will be protected against the Indian variant,” he said. 

The soaring infection levels in the capital have prompted the city’s chief of public health to order certain industries to ensure the vaccination of at least 60 per cent of their employees. The announcement covers workers such as hairdressers, taxi drivers, teachers and performers. 

The order took many in Russia by surprise after President Vladimir Putin and other top officials criticised low vaccination levels but insisted a mandatory vaccination was not on the cards.

President Putin said on Saturday that only 18 million of Russia's 144 million population had been vaccinated. Moscow has been exporting doses of its Sputnik V vaccine, even as Russians themselves have been reluctant to get the shot. 

Trials showed the vaccine is 91 per cent effective against the original Covid variant but the jab was approved by Russian authorities last August, when only early data was available, provoking scepticism among many scientists outside Russia. 

Sergei Sobyanin, the Moscow mayor, said on Wednesday City Hall will monitor the mandatory immunisation.

Mr Sobyanin re-imposed some coronavirus restrictions in the Russian capital last week in a bid to stem the tide of new infections.

“The situation with coronavirus is still dramatic,” he said on his blog on Wednesday, saying the number of hospitalisations in Moscow has now reached 12,000 people.

“We are already at last year’s peak in terms of new infections.”

Denis Protsenko, head physician at Moscow’s main coronavirus hospital, said on Tuesday that his hospital currently has 407 patients on ventilators, which he described as the all-time high of the pandemic.

Hospitals in Moscow are repurposing thousands of hospital beds for an influx of Covid-19 patients and told residents to stay off work this week to help curb the spread.

Russian nationals are currently not allowed into EU nations due to high levels in Covid unless there is an emergency reason for their visit. If traveling to Britain, Russians have to go through an obligatory quarantine.

The emergence of new, more transmissible variants in countries that have seen high infection levels has been a feature of the pandemic. Russian authorities will be keen to avoid a situation similar to the UK where the Delta variant - now making up more than 90 per cent of new cases - has led to rising numbers of infections despite high rates of vaccination and has prompted a delay to the lifting of all Covid restrictions. 

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