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Seven time zones of Siberia and Russian Far East are almost clear of coronavirus - but why?

By Anna Liesowska
14 March 2020

Virus expert says doubts ‘gnaw’ at him over lack of confirmed cases east of Urals to Pacific.

Russian State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology, Vector, in Koltsovo, Novosibirsk region. Picture: Vector

On the face of it Siberia and the Russian Far East has defied the odds and currently only two confirmed cases of Covid-19 according to reports of locations of coronavirus infections.

Russia has registered low numbers with a total on Saturday of 47, a figure which includes those now clear of the virus. 

Two of these were in Siberia: a man named Wan Yunbin, 30, in the city of Chita, and a female student called Lesley in Tyumen. Both were certified as having recovered from the illness by 13 February.

Today two separate cases were confirmed in Kemerovo city in western Siberia, with one more suspected in Novokuznetsk.

And in the country’s most easterly region Chukotka, a miner who flew back to Russia from an Italian holiday, is suspected to have caught coronavirus. 

He has been hospitalised as a precaution but his infection is not yet confirmed.  

Even so, some see Siberia the go-to place in the world to avoid coronavirus. The low numbers of infection are exceptional. 

COVID19 Siberia

COVID19 Siberia
Chukotka's KUPOL gold mine, and a GV of Kemerovo in Western Siberia. Pictures: Evgeny Basov, Tatiana Kachanovskaya

We spoke to Dr Alexander Chepurnov, a leading virologist who previously headed research into ebola at the world famous Russian State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology, Vector, in Koltsovo, Novosibirsk region.

‘I'm not that sure that all is so safe here,’ he said.

‘I cannot find any explanation [to the fact that a low number of people have been diagnosed with the virus in Russia] and that is why doubts gnaw at me.’

He said: ‘What is worrying, in my opinion, is that I do not understand why they do not take samples from all people with pneumonia. 

‘All these cases are now ascribed to seasonal flu.’

COVID19 Siberia
Dr Alexander Chepurnov, a leading virologist pictured with colleagues who headed research into Ebola at the world famous Russian State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology, Vector, in Koltsovo, Novosibirsk region. Picture: Alexander Chepurnov

Moscow, for example, appears to show a spike in pneumonia cases of 37% in January compared with a year earlier. 

‘We have a lot of pneumonia cases, and I see that in hospitals they do not take samples,’ Chepurnov said, evidently fearing that these patients might suffer from coronavirus. 

'That means that maybe the web is not cast very wide.

‘I cannot quite understand the situation, and I am not sure that the conclusion about the safety of our region is right. 

‘In general it looks rather strange: the part of the country that directly borders with China, with a large number of people that cross the border here and there, has such a calm situation in terms of coronavirus. It is quite surprising.’

COVID19 Siberia
Dr Alexander Chepurnov. Picture: Alexander Chepurnov

Another expert Dr Valentin Kovalev, an Infectious disease specialist at Rassvet Clinic, told Medusa publication: 'To distinguish the course of coronavirus infection from the usual seasonal flu is almost impossible without laboratory confirmation. 

'This is a cough, runny nose, fever, mucus, and so on, so I think that coronavirus infection has long come to us from China - and many have already been ill with it. 

'But we don't know about these cases because mostly the infection flows like a normal acute respiratory infection, and the person recovers. 

'In our country, no-one routinely examines those who suffer from a cold at home.'

Evolutionary biologist George Bazykin, of Skoltech, told Medusa: 'I don't have a good answer [why there are so few confirmed cases of coronavirus in Russia]. 

'Maybe we are just lucky and no-one brought them. 

'Perhaps some brought it, but recovered, without infecting anyone.

'Perhaps there are many unregistered cases - according to early data, about two-thirds of all cross-border transfers were unregistered - but I did not see any direct data confirming hidden cases in Russia.'

COVID19 Siberia
Staff training at the airport of Irkutsk. Picture: Irkutsk airport

Against this, Russian hospitals say they are testing appropriately for coronavirus and Vector - where Dr Chepurnov worked - has led the way in producing testing kits. 

Russian government officials also claim credit for swift and decisive action, taken earlier than in many Western countries. 

For example, most entry points on Russia’s border with China is 4,209 km in length (2,615 miles) were closed after the Wuhan outbreak. 

Passenger trains from China were halted as early as 2 February and flight restrictions on foreigners arriving from this country were imposed the following day.

The temporary ban on Chinese citizens entering Russia remains in force. 

More recently, flights to Europe were limited with Russia closed to Italians and foreigners travelling from Italy. 

COVID19 Siberia
COVID19 staff training at the airport of Irkutsk, Eastern Siberia. Picture: Irkutsk airport

Russia has also taken strong action from an early stage in the coronavirus spread to demand quarantine and self-quarantine from those at risk.

The pneumonia statistics do not necessarily hide anything suspicious, either. 

RBK received official information from Rosstat that there was a 37% spike in Moscow.

In January 2019, there were 5,058 cases and this year 6,921. 

But in Russia overall there were 90,100 people with pneumonia, an increase on January 2019 of only 3%.

Comments (11)

Because the so called expert's got it wrong
The virus thrives in warm to hot weather cold is the only element that can control it or destroy it
Techienumber1, Uk
28/11/2020 08:42
I don't scare that easy I do what I have to do I keep on working and I am not going to let any body tell me different and its stupid that people are buying all of the toilet paper and milk eggs and bread and bottle water
DONALD Warren, United States
10/04/2020 13:30
@Theodore Martin, it is now 33,000 dead, you should take it seriously.
NIkita, Novosibirsk
30/03/2020 06:50
British are buying up toilet roll at an enormous rate. Going mad they are, like they never seen toilet roll before. The Americans the same, no civility about them & leaving the care-givers without supplies/grocery’s to buy. If they're not careful they'll have created a new virus all by themselves, "Toileritis". (My name for a new disease for them).
As for Covid-19 it's more likely loose in Russia, I mean, it doesn't respect borders. The first Wuhan, China case was last December 2019, the first of December to be exact. Since then it's carved up the world, it's everywhere. Probably not in Antarctica yet, but mostly is everywhere else. They say the warm weather will help it die out, but in Australia where they have summer right now it's spreading widely. I would have to agree with medical experts in Russia, that it is in Russia, it has to be. You have had cases & probably unreported cases. The 3 main symptoms are fever, dry cough & fatigue. Shortness of breath may also happen, but not to everyone. All are at risk, but most at risk are people with underlying illnesses, elderly, obese, & smokers. You can also have the virus & not have any symptoms & thus can spread it this way. So as you can see it's a horrible piece of work & needs to be avoided. Washing hands loads of times a day & good hygiene goes a long way to helping yourself & others. Covering you cough & sleeve sneezing if you don't have a napkin also does wonders. & keep 2 meter distance between people. Latest from WHO is that Russia has 253 cases of Covid-19.

Look after yourselves & stay safe.

PS. Try not to touch you face especially nose & mouth or better still don't.
Jaker, Dundalk
22/03/2020 10:52
Yes, I think the virus is less strong in cold weather. Here we have had no winter at all. It has been springlike all winter. I am in the south of Italy and my heart goes out to those in the north that are facing such unbelievable tragedy. May God help us all.
Mongibello , Italy
21/03/2020 22:17
Whatever the reason- I am glad for it. I hope to visit Siberia some day. People are funny buying all the bottled water when we have lots of snow on the ground that could be melted if needed. Everyone should have at least 2 weeks of food/supplies anywhere you live. Stay safe!
Brian Erdrich, Anchorage, Alaska
20/03/2020 00:47
The virus loves warmth
Rishat, Almetyevsc Russia
18/03/2020 23:26
I'm Still waiting for the "devastation " to begin in China .6000 dead worldwide ........ It's not happening and won't happen . Just another scare tactic of the Globalist . Yawn .
Theodore Martin , Sioux fa!is usa
18/03/2020 03:00
Why? How about border control, and of course no forced, "diversity is our strength". Look at these pictures. If I were still young, I would move to Siberia.
David Alan, Citrus Spring/USA
18/03/2020 00:51
I worked (and fought) a lot with Russians in and mainly ouside Russia and noticed that they do not dramatise and panic that easily, and they also don't bite. Morak I back you up on 'resort to panic making' is a new tool to stop payments with kreditcards. Worked in about 75 countries I have never picked up a lasting flu, with thanks to : be able to mix with the 'local dirt' which protect you from bad diseases. Or diving into a filthy trash can gives you beter chances to adapt to diseases then sanitising your hands.
Choke, Groningen/Netherlands
17/03/2020 13:44
but most important, you do not resort to panic making, might that be the print or other media. precaution,common sense, brain and a few other things for sure have left most places in the EU and USA or Australia. panic buying, tons of toilet paper, shelves empty of everything and anything. here in Moscow we go our normal way, work or at home. Trams,buses and the Metro are full of people going their way. Shops are well stocked, no need to buy 100 rolls of toilet paper at once. we had 10 cm snow over night, THAT is the biggest -problem- today...
MORAK Benedikt, Moscow
15/03/2020 08:33

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