Russian PM Tests Positive for COVID-19 as Putin Warns Peak Has Yet to Come

By Dimitri Simes | April 30, 2020 | 9:55pm EDT
President Vladimir Putin and then-incoming Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin in January. (Photo: The Kremlin)
President Vladimir Putin and then-incoming Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin in January. (Photo: The Kremlin)

Moscow ( –  As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases reported in Russia passed 100,000, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin announced Thursday that he has tested positive and is temporarily stepping back from his work to recover.

Mishustin informed President Vladimir Putin of his diagnosis during a video conference. Putin wished Mishustin a swift recovery and signed a decree appointing First Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov as acting prime minister.

Mishustin, who according to a spokesman will be hospitalized during his period of self-isolation, is the highest ranking official here to test positive for coronavirus. The former tax chief was appointed prime minister in January and has led the Kremlin’s response to the pandemic.

News of Mishustin’s diagnosis came as Russia reported a record increase of 7,099 new infections on Thursday, reaching a total of 106,498 confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to a Johns Hopkins University (JHU) real time database.

Earlier this week, Russia surpassed both China and Iran to become the eighth worst-hit country in terms of the number of confirmed cases. (Both China and Iran have been accused of underreporting.)

During a national address on Tuesday, Putin announced he is extending a national paid non-working period, first instituted on March 25, through May 11.

“We are facing a new and perhaps the most intense stage in countering the epidemic.” Putin said. “The risk of infection is reaching a peak; the threat and the lethal risks of the virus remain, and everyone is at risk.”

Despite the rapid rise in infections, the mortality rate in Russia from the virus remains relatively low. As of Thursday, only 1,073 deaths had been attributed to COVID-19, in a country of 142 million people.

According to JHU data, Russia accounts for a mortality (case-fatality) rate of one percent, by far the lowest among the 10 countries with the highest number of reported cases.

By contrast, Britain’s mortality rate is 15.7 percent, France’s is 14.5 percent and Italy has a mortality rate of 13.6 percent. The United States’ rate is 5.8 percent, and even Germany, whose success in battling the disease has earned international praise, has a mortality rate of four percent, four times larger than Russia’s.

By another measure, Russia has reported 0.67 deaths per 100,000 people, in contrast to Spain (51.9), Britain (39.3) or the Netherlands (27.4 deaths per 100,000).

Some critics have pointed out that Russia’s official death toll does not include the number of health personnel who have died from the virus, believed to exceed 70 as of Wednesday.

While data accuracy is in question in many countries, some experts believe Russia has some advantages that help to keep mortality rates low.

Russia’s long experience in battling tuberculosis (TB) has provided the country with the health-care infrastructure necessary to mitigate the coronavirus outbreak, Alexandria Vacroux, executive director of Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, argued in an article for Russia Matters.

“Unlike COVID-19, TB is concentrated in vulnerable populations like the homeless,” Vacroux wrote. “However, both COVID-19 and TB are highly infectious diseases that spread through the air, and Russia’s experience in bringing down TB rates by 5-6 percent per year suggests that the country has the capacity to tackle a highly infectious disease.”

Some immunologists have also suggested that the anti-tuberculosis BCG vaccine may help slow down the transmission and mortality rates for COVID-19. Russia, like much of the former Soviet Union, mandates that all children receive a BCG vaccine. 

The World Health Organization, however, has cautioned that there is no evidence that the BCG vaccine protects people against being infected by coronavirus.

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