Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that dozens of people in his inner circle in the Kremlin have tested positive for coronavirus, which has affected more than 7 million people in the worst affected country.
Earlier this week, Putin, 68, said he was isolating himself after announcing an outbreak among members of his entourage.
“Cases of the coronavirus were detected in my inner circle. Not just one or two, but several dozen people, “Putin said, speaking via video link at a meeting of a Moscow-led security alliance.
Putin was scheduled to attend the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) meeting in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe in person, but instead joined remotely.
News of the extent of the outbreak in the Kremlin comes a day before three-day staggered parliamentary elections open in Russia to limit the spread of the virus.
Authorities have done everything they can to protect Putin, who has been vaccinated with Russia’s homegrown Sputnik V jab, since the start of the pandemic.
Foreign leaders, journalists and officials have had to isolate themselves before meeting with the longtime Russian leader.
Putin met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and athletes returning from the Tokyo Paralympic Games this week, just before the Kremlin said it was isolating itself.
Russia has the fifth highest number of recorded Covid cases, according to an AFP tally, and has struggled to control infections despite easy access to vaccines.
According to the latest figures, the country has recorded more than 7 million cases and 195,041 deaths, the highest death toll in Europe.
Infections have been declining in recent days after a spike this summer, but health officials still reported 18,841 new cases and 792 new deaths on Wednesday.
Authorities have struggled with a population skeptical of vaccines, with independent polls showing that the majority of Russians do not plan to get vaccinated.
As of Tuesday, about 40.2 million of Russia’s 146 million inhabitants had been fully vaccinated, according to the Gogov website, which counts Covid data from the regions.
Russia has several homegrown vaccines freely available to the public, but does not distribute Western-made injections.
Moscow, the center of Russia’s outbreak, and a number of regions have introduced mandatory vaccination measures to speed up the inoculation campaign, and Putin has repeatedly called on Russians to get vaccinated.
The Kremlin initially set a goal of fully inoculating 60% of Russia’s population by September, but later dropped that goal even though free strikes have been available since early December.
Russian authorities have been accused of downplaying the effects of the pandemic and, after a first strict shutdown in 2020, have refrained from introducing new restrictive measures.
Instead, the country pinned its hopes of reducing the pandemic on its four homegrown vaccines: Sputnik V, EpiVacCorona, CoviVac and the one-dose Sputnik Light.