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Russia’s coronavirus rush A hurried end to Moscow’s quarantine makes another COVID-19 wave a near certainty

Source: Meduza
Pavel Golovkin / AP / Scanpix / LETA

On June 9, Moscow lifted many of its most severe quarantine restrictions implemented to curb the spread of coronavirus. Many of the remaining limits on ordinary life — such as indoor cafe and restaurant service — will expire in just more than a week. This abrupt policy shift, rolled out shortly before a July 1 nationwide plebiscite on constitutional amendments (including reforms that could extend Vladimir Putin’s presidency to 2036), puts the Russian capital in a small group of large cities that have abandoned major containment measures before overcoming their coronavirus outbreaks. The spread of coronavirus peaked in Moscow and several other cities across the country back in mid-May, but infection rates have “stalled” at this level. Based on Meduza’s calculations, the capital remains Russia’s COVID-19 epicenter and still has hundreds of thousands of “active cases” — infected people who are capable of spreading the disease. Will Russia’s hurried containment exit lead to a new wave of infections? Scientific models used to predict the path of coronavirus say this is a near certainty. 

A lot of the world was on lockdown. Now various countries are lifting restrictions. How is the shift in Russia any different?

Russia’s containment measures were effective in April, but that effectiveness collapsed in May. As a result, the country failed to reduce its coronavirus outbreak to the level Europe considers sufficient for lifting restrictions on movement and social interactions.

The data modeled below come from the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker, which “systematically collects information on several different common policy responses that governments have taken to respond to the pandemic on 17 indicators, such as school closures and travel restrictions.” Russia ostensibly made a relatively longer and stricter commitment to containment measures than many European states.

Researchers at Oxford found that the only area where Russia lagged behind developed European countries in its response to coronavirus was in social assistance to struggling laborers. This shortcoming may have contributed to Russia’s containment problems in May.

On June 8, researchers at the Imperial College London released a study showing that deaths caused by the coronavirus plummet roughly three weeks after recorded mobility falls at least 68 percent according to pre-pandemic Apple Maps data (or 59 percent according to Google Maps). Only Switzerland, Sweden, and Great Britain have apparently managed to keep COVID-19 in check, despite never crossing this threshold in reduced mobility.

Russia’s strict containment measures managed to reduce mobility in April by at least 68 percent, but mobility started rising above the threshold again in May, despite the fact that restrictions on movement remained in place for several weeks. In other words, Russia’s quarantine remained in place, but compliance deteriorated. As a result, the country never turned the corner: Moscow’s outbreak peaked in mid-May and deaths peaked in early June, but figures didn’t fall to the levels recorded elsewhere in Europe.

Why didn’t quarantine work in Russia?

Compliance with containment measures relies on the logical coherence of these measures, the public’s trust in the authorities’ actions, and the authorities’ ability to mitigate the costs of quarantine for the public. The Russian authorities ultimately failed to convince people on these fronts. 

Are there any “rules” about when to start lifting containment measures?

No, there’s only common sense. From the perspective of policymakers in Europe, where scientists spent a long time publicly debating plans to begin a phased withdrawal from quarantine, Moscow’s decision to resume many normal operations looks premature and extremely dangerous. Developing countries outside the West have admittedly sought to lift restrictions earlier than in Europe, but none of these states has gone about it as hurriedly as Russia. 

According to Germany’s leading coronavirus expert, Christian Drosten, COVID-19’s actual transmission rate (Rt) should fall to 0.3, before decision makers begin lifting containment measures against the disease. In other words, the number of patients must plummet and social contact has to decline to the point that the average carrier infects far fewer than one other person while recovering from the virus.

Until the epidemic is defeated, countries also need to be ready to operate contact-tracing systems. Relying on smartphone apps to mine personal data, South Korea and China have implemented some of the most sophisticated programs in this area. Companies like Apple and Google in the U.S. have started rolling out their own contact-tracing systems, as well. Moscow has no such program.

Moscow’s expedited exit from quarantine mirrors policies adopted in major cities of developing countries, but the Russian capital has moved relatively fast even in this comparison. For instance, Sao Paulo has also started rolling back containment measures, but reduced mobility trends in Brazil have been better than in Russia (remaining below the threshold identified by the Imperial College London researchers). 

In Mumbai, meanwhile, the authorities’ “signals” that they will soon end quarantine restrictions have undermined compliance with containment measures and raised mobility trends above the mobility reduction thresholds consistent with suppressing the actual transmission rate of the coronavirus.

If there are no general rules for lifting quarantine, why not accept the Moscow authorities’ more “promising” infection statistics?

Because even the official numbers aren’t actually all that promising. Additionally, Russia’s methods of lifting containment restrictions say little about the real state of the epidemic; instead, they reflect the effectiveness of testing the population and they compel regional officials to manipulate data.

On May 8, 2020, Russia’s Federal Service for Consumer Rights Protection and Human Welfare (Rospotrebnadzor) introduced a three-stage plan for lifting containment measures against the coronavirus, pegging the different phases at actual transmission rates of 0.8-1.0, 0.5-0.8, and below 0.5. 

In Moscow, COVID-19’s Rt has fluctuated between 0.8 and 0.95, but the capital has decided to push ahead with more radical plans to lift containment measures reserved for later stages. President Putin is reportedly responsible for “convincing” Mayor Sergey Sobyanin to move so quickly.

The main problem, however, is the peculiar methodology Rospotrebnadzor advocates for calculating COVID-19’s actual transmission rate: dividing the average number of officially registered coronavirus cases in the past four days by the average number for the preceding four days. No other country in the world measures Rt this way, presumably because it captures the effectiveness of testing, not the number of active cases at any given time. Meduza has laid out its own methodology for modeling Rt here.

Additionally, regional officials collecting these data can easily fudge the numbers to produce the coefficients demanded by the Kremlin.

Does this mean Moscow should expect a second wave of COVID-19?

Based on Meduza’s calculations, there were roughly 300,000 active coronavirus carriers in Moscow in late May. Experts expect the number of nationwide coronavirus infections to spike again soon, but it’s impossible to know what happens next. No country in the world has yet tried to lift all containment measures before meeting so many thresholds in its fight against the coronavirus. 

In Moscow, excess mortality data from April show that roughly 2.8 times more people infected with the coronavirus died than official COVID-19 death statistics indicate. The latest epidemiological modeling shows that COVID-19’s actual transmission rate in Moscow has stalled near an Rt coefficient of 1.0 since mid-May, and international studies have found a lag of 10–15 days between coronavirus case registration and death, and a lag of 20–22 days between the moment of infection and death. 

In other words, if the capital’s mortality underreporting persists in total case counts, Moscow had nearly 300,000 active carriers in late May — not just the 100,000 patients officially reported. 

Studying these data, scientists in the West have predicted new waves of coronavirus infections in Russia:

  • Models by the University of Melbourne
  • Models by the Imperial College London
  • Models by the Los Alamos National Laboratory
  • Models by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Text by Dmitry Kuznets and Alexander Ershov

Summary by Kevin Rothrock

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