President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that dozens of people in his inner circle at the Kremlin had tested positive for coronavirus, which has affected over seven million people in the badly-hit country.
Earlier this week, the 68-year-old Putin said he was self-isolating 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 had been due to attend the meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe in person, but said Tuesday he would instead join remotely.
News of the extent of the outbreak at the Kremlin comes a day before staggered three-day parliamentary elections open in Russia to limit the spread of the virus.
Authorities have gone to great lengths 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 all had to self-isolate before meeting the longtime Russian leader.
Putin this week met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and athletes returning from the Tokyo Paralympic Games, just before the Kremlin said he was self-isolating.
Russia has the fifth-highest number of recorded Covid cases, according to an AFP tally, and has struggled to rein in 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 falling 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 vaccine-sceptic population, with independent polls showing that a majority of Russians do not plan to be inoculated.
As of Tuesday, about 40.2 million of Russia’s 146 million people had been fully vaccinated, according to the Gogov website, which tallies Covid data from the regions.
Russia has several homegrown vaccines freely available to the public, but does not distribute any Western-made jabs.
Moscow, the epicentre of Russia’s outbreak, and a host of regions have introduced mandatory vaccination measures to speed up the inoculation drive, and Putin has repeatedly called on Russians to get vaccinated.
The Kremlin initially set a goal of fully inoculating 60 percent of Russia’s population by September, but later dropped that target even though free jabs have been available since early December.
Russian authorities have been accused of vastly downplaying the effects of the pandemic and, after a tight first lockdown in 2020, have refrained from introducing new restrictive measures.
The country instead pinned its hopes of curtailing the pandemic on its four homegrown vaccines — Sputnik V, EpiVacCorona, CoviVac and the one-dose Sputnik Light.