Vladimir Putin and coronavirus: How the Russian state spends a fortune shielding the president from Covid
Around $54.6m was spent on measures to protect Russian President Vladimir Putin's health in the two pandemic years 2020 and 2021, according to openly available data from Russian state sources.
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At the height of the Covid pandemic, Russian President Vladimir Putin was one of the most protected state leaders in the world - he still is, despite the relaxation of coronavirus measures around the world. Everyone with access within a kilometre radius of the Russian leader (and that's dozens of people, such as doctors, service staff, pilots and many others) has to spend two weeks in quarantine and take no fewer than four Covid tests, as well as other medical tests, including in some cases stool samples. How does the system protecting Vladimir Putin's health work?
"And then it was my turn. We shook hands and I passed on best wishes to him [Vladimir Putin] from all the war veterans in our republic," a retired general from the Russian region of Tatarstan, Akhat Yulashev, told local media when he returned home from Moscow.
"He smiled at me. He made such an impression!"
The 94-year-old travelled to Moscow to attend the 9 May Victory Day parade in the city's famous Red Square. But because he would get close to Mr Putin, he first had to spend two weeks in quarantine in a Moscow hotel which he described as "luxurious".
The BBC did not manage to speak to General Yulashev personally, but he is understood to have been one of around 400 people to have quarantined for a fortnight in luxurious Moscow hotels (one five star and one four star) ahead of a close encounter with the Russian leader that day.
It appears that even with the pandemic easing and the rollout of various vaccines, protective measures around Mr Putin have stayed in place.
The president moves around his residences a lot more now than previously during the past two years, as do his service and medical staff - and everyone else who comes into contact with him.
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Openly available data from Russian state sources reveals that around 3.2 billion roubles ($54.6m) were spent on protecting Putin's health through these measures. Mikhail Fremderman, an Israeli doctor who until 2014 was based in Russia, describes their scale as unprecedented.
"From these measures, it's impossible to judge whether the Russian president is experiencing serious health problems. They are most likely to be safety precautions."
Konstantin Balonov, a US-based doctor who has treated critically ill Covid patients, lived in Russia until the mid-90s. He says the excessive measures could be linked to Kremlin medics erring on the safe side.
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While there was every reason for Covid swabs earlier in the pandemic, as time went by and the number of cases in Russia subsided, the measures did not ease. Despite the fact that President Putin was reported to have been vaccinated against Covid, testing for everyone who came into contact with him remained compulsory.
Also, new tests were added, such as testing for Covid antibodies, flu, cold and staph infection, as well as stool samples for worms for some.
According to the state open sources, since the beginning of 2021, around 1,500 people have undergone comprehensive testing.
In February 2022, some Russian media citing anonymous sources reported that some Kremlin staff members with access to the president had to submit stool samples once a week.
Open sources also indicate that air crews and staff involved in transporting the Russian president undergo regular testing as well. In their case, it is a wide variety of tests - from quick PCR Covid-tests to antibodies testing to stool samples. In total, $2.1m are reported to have been spent over the past two years on the tests for flight staff.
In May alone this year, flight crews submitted 1,376 swabs and 98 stool samples, as well as 447 blood tests. A significant number spent two weeks in quarantine in hotels in Moscow suburbs.
One Russian doctor, an infectious diseases specialist, told the BBC that this "excessive level of testing" cannot not have a medical purpose.
"These tests are doubling up normal PCR tests," he says, adding that he is not aware of the faecal route of Covid infection.
Testing for other infections and a sharp reduction in contact with the outside world is common for critical patients, says the doctor, but only when they are about to undergo surgery.
He says it is likely that all this testing is not based on medical science but instead is an attempt by lower ranking officials "to curry favour with their bosses - to show that they have thought of everything."
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In March 2021 the Kremlin announced that President Putin had been vaccinated. Later it was announced the vaccine used was the first vaccine produced in Russia, Sputnik V. Its testing processes were questioned by many experts outside Russia.
Following the vaccination, Vladimir Putin returned to travelling more frequently around the country, staying at his residences outside of Moscow. On these trips he is frequently accompanied by doctors.
The BBC has discovered from open sources that up to four doctors accompanied President Putin on his visits to his holiday house on the picturesque Lake Uzhyn, some 400km north-west of Moscow. Tens of thousands of dollars were spent on accommodation for the medical staff.
There are also open-source indications that doctors accompany Vladimir Putin on his trips to another residence, this time in Sochi in southern Russia.
The BBC has established that a team of doctors also accompanied the Russian president when he attended business forums in St Petersburg and in Vladivostok. The latter is an especially complicated undertaking as Vladivostok is in the Russian Far East, an 11-hour flight from Moscow.
Independent Russian media has reported that some Kremlin staff have spent up to 150 days in a single year in quarantine in sole occupancy hotel rooms.
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How does this compare with other countries?
Israeli doctor Mikhail Fremderman says that current Covid measures in Israel are the same for the head of government as they are for ordinary citizens. No additional measures or testing are reported to be taking place there. The Israeli PM is accompanied by doctors, but only on overseas trips.
US-based doctor Konstantin Balonov says he has never heard of anyone being tested for Covid through stool samples, and the only tests he is aware of are PCR or antigen tests.
Balonov says his sources familiar with medical protocols at the White House confirmed that no testing or quarantine are currently applicable to members of the press, although earlier in the pandemic, journalists attending press conferences at the White House were required to present negative Covid test results and wear a face covering - measures which were standard across all public spaces in the US at the time.
Read the full story in Russian here.