CNN’s New Sweetheart: Who’s the Russian ‘Doctor’ Trashing Moscow’s COVID-19 Vaccine?

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Russia will register the world’s first anti-COVID-19 vaccine next week, the country’s Deputy Health Minister Oleg Gridnev said. But even as the vaccine is currently undergoing its final trials, some critics in the Western media just can’t help but cast doubt on Russian medicine’s response to the challenge of the coronavirus.

A recent reportage by CNN’s Moscow-based correspondent Matthew Chance was billed by the channel as an expose to “investigate” Russia’s “claim of a cutting-edge virus response”, as the world eagerly awaits the coronavirus vaccine that is set to be unveiled by Russian scientists next week.

But strangely, Chance’s report featured an interview with Anastasia Vasilyeva, an ophthalmologist who has actually little to do with the development of the soon-to-be-registered vaccine, but a lot to do with Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny, an outspoken critic of the country’s anti-coronavirus policies.

Vasilyeva is a leading light in the “Doctor’s Alliance”, an entity that exists under the umbrella organization of convicted felon Navalny, a self-described anti-corruption campaigner, who was previously sentenced to several terms in jail on embezzlement and fraud charges, as well as holding numerous unlawful rallies.

AP Photo / Alexander Zemlianichenko

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, left, speaks to the media prior to a court session in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019

In a reportage titled “Russia claims rapid advances in testing & vaccine”, Vasilyeva questioned the safety and effectiveness of the upcoming vaccine, claiming that Russian scientists “did not do the necessary investigation” before its use. “They just want to say ‘we are the first’”, she said, citing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s personal ambitions and the need to present himself as the world’s “best” politician as a reason for such speed. And according to the CNN’s interviewer concluding remarks, Chance was eager to present Vasilyeva’s arguments as the final word and absolute truth on the matter.

But do Vasilyeva’s political affiliations make her a credible figure that should be trusted above Russian health ministers and scientists from the Gamaleya Research Institute?

I for Impartiality…or Income?

Anastasia Vasilyeva, a former third-generation ophthalmologist from Moscow’s Research Institute of Eye Diseases, became Navalny’s personal doctor when he started experiencing problems with his eyes a few years ago.

In turn, Navalny helped Vasilyeva to organize an “independent” trade union organization “Doctor’s Alliance” in 2018, which was set to help medical workers throughout Russia with legal matters.

The organization, which is now a part of “Trade Union of Navalny” umbrella association, exists based on private donations and contributions from its members and is fully “independent”, according to Vasilyeva. However, a deeper analysis of the union’s financial statements by an online investigator showed that it previously received funding from Russian commercial and non-profit organizations, dating back at least as far as 2018, when it was founded. The figures (or their absence) mentioned in the financial records raised some eyebrows, while the total number of the union’s members and lack of information on its regional branches remain obscure to those analysts who have tried to dig out more details about the alliance through Russia’s official register of legal entities.

The “Doctor’s Alliance” has been in a spotlight since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in regards to a lack of accountability over the organization’s spending raised from private donations and a fake reporting scandal. Vasilyeva repeatedly used her Twitter page to publish anonymous accounts of doctors from unidentified Russian hospitals, while slamming the country’s response to the coronavirus.

​One of the controversial statements published by the ophthalmologist included one where she quoted doctors from “one of Moscow hospitals” who, she said, “were told to work in diapers for 8 hours” without the necessary protective equipment. According to Navalny’s close associate, Moscow officials were “hiding” coronavirus statistics – baseless allegations that soon prompted Russia’s Investigative Committee to launch a review into the matter. Vasilyeva has been more careful with the publication of anonymous statements on the coronavirus since then, according to her Twitter feed. However, it is still unclear why it was her sole expertise that was so needed by CNN in relation to information regarding the development of the coronavirus vaccine.

Russia is in the Forefront in the COVID-19 Fight

The world’s first anti-COVID-19 vaccine developed by the Moscow-based Gamaleya Research Institute and the Russian Defence Ministry will be registered on 12 August, according to Russia’s Deputy Health Minister Oleg Gridnev. The vaccine has been undergoing testing in two Russian institutions: the Burdenko Main Military Clinical Hospital and the Sechenov First Moscow State Medical University.

Sputnik / Andrei Kataev

Medics in the Russian military hospital after coronavirus vaccine trials

Two groups of volunteers involved in the trials were discharged from hospitals in July, with participants showing an “unmistakable” immune response to SARS-CoV-2, the Russian Defence Ministry said. No side effects or other side effects were seen in volunteers, the ministry added.

Meanwhile, other countries around the world have continued their trials of the COVID-19 vaccine, with one developed by the University of Oxford also showing immune response among participants, it was announced at the end of July, with the next stages of testing now expected.

Russian Health Minister Mikhail Murashko revealed last week that Russia expects to start the first phase of mass vaccination in October.

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