Russian Health Experts Are Fighting About Vodka and the COVID Vaccine

A health official told Russians to give up alcohol for two months, but the vaccine-maker says champagne is OK.
December 9, 2020, 8:27pm
Bottles of Smirnov vodka for sale at a Lenta hypermarket.
Bottles of Smirnov vodka for sale at a Lenta hypermarket.   (Photo by Maxim Grigoryev\TASS via Getty Images)

A top Russian health official warned her countrymen they should give up alcohol for almost two months if they take the country’s new Sputnik V vaccine for the novel coronavirus.   

And plenty of Russians, who are just now gearing up to enjoy the country’s notoriously long 10-day New Year’s holiday in early January, are not psyched about the advice.  

“This really bothers me,” Elena Kriven, a Moscow resident, told the Reuters news agency. “I reckon the stress on the body of giving up alcohol, especially during what is a festive period, would be worse than the [side effects of the] vaccine and its alleged benefits.”  

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The warning has caused a clash between Russia’s efforts to control the pandemic and its legendary national love affair with vodka. Although Russian alcohol consumption has declined significantly in recent years, the nation still ranks among the hardest-drinking countries in the world

Anna Popova, head of the consumer health watchdog Rospotrebnadzor, urged Russians on Tuesday to stay away from booze for at least two weeks before getting the first of two injections of the Sputnik V vaccine, and then for another 42 days. 

“It puts a strain on the body,” Popova told the Komsomolskaya Pravda radio station. “If we want to stay healthy and have a protective reaction, we shouldn’t drink alcohol.” 

But the vaccine-maker itself pushed back hard on her advice, saying Popova doesn’t know what she’s talking about. 

The Twitter account of the lab that developed the vaccine, Gamaleya National Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology, dismissed the two-month dry-spell timeframe as “fake news.” 

Alexander Gintsburg, head of the Gamaleya center, instead said that anyone being vaccinated should refrain from drinking for three days after each of the two shots. He added that, generally speaking, moderate alcohol consumption should be considered OK. 

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“One glass of champagne won't hurt anyone, not even your immune system,” Gintsburg said, according to a tweet sent by the vaccine maker’s Twitter account, featuring a picture of American actor Leonardo DiCaprio raising a glass of bubbly. 

The clash between a senior Russian health official and the coronavirus vaccine maker wasn’t the only source of conflicting information for Russians attempting to sort out the truth about alcohol and the vaccine.

Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova has publicly urged Russians to “limit” their alcohol intake for a period of 42 days.

Alexei Agranovsky, a professor of virology at Moscow State University, on the other hand, told news outlet Komsomolskaya Pravda that drinking a moderate amount of champagne would be “the right decision,” because, he said, “maintaining a good mood is just as important for the immune system as not drinking too much.” 

A spokesperson for Pfizer, which developed a coronavirus vaccine that is now being distributed in the U.K., told Britain’s The Independent newspaper that health regulators had not included any warnings about alcohol consumption for their vaccine.