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Explained: Why Russia’s warning to avoid alcohol after Covid-19 vaccine caused a storm in a wine glass

While Russia's Deputy PM and the head of its consumer safety watchdog have said people should avoid alcohol after the Sputnik V shot, the vaccine's developer has contradicted the warning. In the UK, where Covid vaccination is underway, no such liquor guideline exists.

Written by Rahel Philipose , Edited by Explained Desk | Vasco | Updated: December 18, 2020 3:09:56 pm
Covid vaccine, Covid vaccines, Russia Covid vaccine, sputnik v, sputnik v alcohol warning, russia covid vaccine alcohol, should one avoid alcohol after covid vaccine, express explained, indian expressA woman in a mask walks past a Moscow store decorated for Christmas. Some in Russia have objected to the alcohol warning specially because it comes amid the festive season. (Photo: AP)

Days ahead of a large-scale inoculation campaign for the Covid-19 vaccine ‘Sputnik V’, Russian health officials are asking citizens to avoid alcohol for around two months.

The warning has not gone down well with a wide section of Russians, who believe the request is unreasonable. Some health experts fear that the extreme recommendation may even dissuade people from getting the vaccine.

Why have Russian officials warned citizens to avoid alcohol?

The warning was issued by the country’s Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova, who in an interview urged all Russians to be extra cautious during the 42 days it takes for the Sputnik V vaccine to be effective.

“[Russians] will have to refrain from visiting crowded places, wear face masks, use sanitisers, minimise contacts and refrain from drinking alcohol or taking immunosuppressant drugs,” Golikova told News Agency TASS recently.

In an interview with Russian radio station Komsomolskaya Pravda, Anna Popova — the head of Russia’s consumer safety watchdog, Rospotrebnadzor — echoed the warning. Apart from urging people to stop drinking for 42 days after receiving the first of the two injections, she also asked them to abstain from alcohol for at least two weeks before getting inoculated.

“It’s a strain on the body. If we want to stay healthy and have a strong immune response, don’t drink alcohol,” Popova explained.

Can drinking alcohol actually reduce the efficacy of the Covid-19 vaccine?

Soon after Popova’s interview, Sputnik V vaccine’s developer, Alexander Gintsburg, contradicted her warning. “One glass of champagne won’t hurt anyone, not even your immune system,” he said in a tweet shared on the vaccine’s official Twitter handle, along with a picture of Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio raising a glass of champagne.

But Gintsburg said it was important to avoid alcohol three days before and after the two injections, Reuters reported. He added that the advice would apply for all Covid-19 vaccines and not just the Russian Sputnik V.

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom — the only country where Covid vaccination is underway in earnest — no such guideline exists. In fact, a spokesperson for pharmaceutical company Pfizer, the developer of the vaccine currently being administered in the UK, confirmed that health regulators have not included any warning about alcohol consumption affecting the efficacy of the injection.

Most health experts around the world have said that there is little evidence to show that a glass of wine or beer could interfere with a person’s immune response after getting vaccinated against Covid-19. Some have even suggested that extreme warnings, such as Popova and Golikova’s, could damage public health by deterring people from getting the vaccine in the first place. 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram

While some studies have shown that excessive consumption of alcohol can damage the immune cells that line a human being’s intestines and thus affect their ability to fight bacteria and viruses, there is not enough research to show that alcohol can prevent a vaccine from producing an immune response.

Coronavirus vaccine, Sputnik V, Covid-19, Russian Covid vaccine, Russia coronavirus, Covid cases, MERS virus, Middle East Respiratory syndrome, Indian express opinion A view of a vial of Russia’s experimental Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine. (Photo: AP)

Why did the warning spark outrage amongst Russians?

Russia is currently ramping up efforts in preparation for a mass vaccination drive set to begin later this week. The jab, which was approved under an accelerated process even before clinical trials were completed, has already been given to thousands of doctors, soldiers, teachers and social workers in recent days. The vaccine is administered over two sittings with a 21-day gap in between.

As per Popova’s warning, citizens receiving the vaccine over the next few weeks will have to refrain from drinking alcohol during the holiday season — which to many Russians is a vastly unreasonable request. Russia is the fourth-largest consumer of alcohol per person in the world, according to the World Health Organisation. The average Russian consumes about 15.1 litres of alcohol every year.

“This really bothers me,” Elena Kriven, a Moscow resident, told Reuters. “I’m unlikely to not be able to drink for 80 days and 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.”

Why has Sputnik V been the subject of widespread skepticism?

Almost nine months after the Covid-19 pandemic broke out in China, Russia became one of the first countries in the world to grant regulatory approval to a vaccine for civilian use. The country’s President, Vladimir Putin, vouched for its effectiveness and insisted that it had the capability to form “a stable immunity” against the deadly infection.

However, the vaccine, developed by Moscow’s Gamaleya Institute in collaboration with the country’s defence ministry, sparked widespread scepticism as it was approved for civilian use even before clinical trials were completed.

The vaccine’s backers insist that it offers 95 per cent protection against the virus. But their data is based purely on interim results, after just 39 trial volunteers contracted the novel coronavirus, BBC reported.

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