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Fake Covid-19 vaccination certificates for sale on Russian Telegram

With low Covid-19 vaccination rates, Russians are buying counterfeit vaccination documents over concerns about Sputnik V.

First in the world to develop a coronavirus vaccine, Russia has struggled to convince its citizens that Sputnik V is safe and effective, with just 3% of the population vaccinated today.

Instead of getting vaccinated, some Russians are turning to the messaging app Telegram where they can purchase a counterfeit vaccine certificate for about $25. Anonymous sellers on the app promise their fake documents will allow Russians to board international flights and side-step mandatory vaccination for students or medical workers, and other professionals.

Telegram channels informally operate as online supermalls for black market products. From synthetic drugs to personal data lifted from Facebook, Telegram users deploy the app’s bot service to make illegal and untraceable sales. Russian users particularly excel with dozens of channels now offering not just fake Sputnik V vaccination documents but also counterfeit antibody and Covid-19 test results, or a doctor’s note excusing a patient from vaccination.

Channels viewed by Coda Story showed messages from administrators warning users they could be punished for refusing to be vaccinated. “Rumor has it that the vaccine will soon become mandatory, and a refusal will get you punished with termination at work, up to an administrative or even capital offense,” warned one admin on the channel “Vaccination.No.” The channel sells three separate types of documents and shares enthusiastic reviews from satisfied customers. 

Dozens of channels offer price lists for sets of coronavirus documents.

“You’re the best,” said one beaming customer in a selfie video posted to the channel. “Soon we’re flying out for our vacation!”

Telegram did not respond to a request for comment about the illegal sales on its platform.

Why it matters: The demand for fake vaccination certificates shows how deep distrust runs for the vaccine which is administered in two shots. The irony is the heavy-handed propaganda that accompanied the rollout of Sputnik V may have backfired and actually fueled distrust of the shot. Unlike the U.S. or most of Europe where rollout prioritizes the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions, getting a Sputnik shot has been accessible for anyone in Russia since January. Across Moscow, inoculation centers are pitched up across shopping malls and food courts.

However, the current vaccination rate — just 3.5% for at least one shot — lags far behind countries who began vaccinating months after Russia: 18% in the U.S. and over 33% in the U.K. Although some Russian regions have yet to receive the vaccine due to winter conditions or supply limits, the government has set an ambitious goal of vaccinating 60% of the population by the summer.

“There is no shortage of vaccines, but one cannot say that there is a rush,” admitted Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov during a recent press briefing.

One Russian who has yet to get vaccinated is President Vladimir Putin, who while extolling the efficacy of Sputnik V says he’ll hold off until late summer or early fall before getting a shot.

The big picture: Even abroad, Sputnik V is a bigger hit than on its home turf. In Europe, Hungary and Slovakia have both approved the vaccine for use ahead of a decision from the European Union, joining more than 40 countries around the world to sign on to Sputnik. The British medical journal The Lancet recently published a peer-reviewed study showing that Sputnik is 91.6% effective and has no severe side effects.

But with over four million cases of coronavirus recorded in Russia — ranking fourth in the world — Sputnik V pitch is failing to land at home.

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Katia Patin

Katia Patin is Coda’s multimedia editor.

Tatiana Torocheshnikova

Tatiana Torocheshnikova is the former editor for CodaRu. She was born in Moscow, Russia. She worked as an editor at Team 29, an association of lawyers and journalists, where she covered violations of human rights and cases of espionage in modern Russia.

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