07/05/2021, 12.20
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The Russian Church caught between science and denial

by Vladimir Rozanskij

Saint Alexis Hospital launches a programme for the development of artificial medical intelligence. Resistance from Orthodox clergy and faithful. The monks of the Valaam monastery refuse to be vaccinated. The patriarchate seeks mediation.


Moscow (AsiaNews) - The capital's Saint Alexis Hospital will be one of the pilot centres for the development of artificial medical intelligence, according to a recent announcement from the main hospital institution of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Members of the staff of St Aleksij's Hospital explained their status as pioneers of the new possibilities of science, which became a real commitment after the signing of an agreement between the hospital and the Federal Centre for Resources of Universal Design and Rehabilitation Technologies. On the basis of artificial intelligence, tools will be created for increasing the accuracy of diagnostics in radiology and patho-morphology, as well as for monitoring the quality of care.

The hospital's director and head physician, Aleksej Zarov, told the Interfax-Religija website that "as early as 2020 our facility was among the first in Moscow to introduce a neural network algorithm for the recognition of coronavirus pneumonia with the application of computer tomography of the lungs. Today we continue to expand our research'.

The research at St. Alexis, together with other related centres in Russia, will increase the possibilities of treating cancer and other diseases using histological examinations. Doctors throughout the country and patients themselves will be able to receive remote data and digital copies of all the research carried out at the medical centre.

Pavel Filisteev, deputy head of diagnostics, says that 'data is the oil of the 21st century, and its processing in the medical field is the real fuel for the acceleration of healthcare quality. Artificial intelligence can never replace the doctor, but it can make his work much faster and more efficient'.

The paradox is that the use of artificial intelligence in medicine is the target of those in the country who oppose Covid-19 treatments. Russian deniers suspect that the coronavirus and the vaccines to eradicate it are a means of remotely controlling people.

Among them are the more than 200 monks of the large patriarchal ('stavropighiale') monastery on the Valaam Islands in Karelia, in the far north of European Russia. This is one of the most important sanctuaries in Russian Orthodoxy. The refusal of the monks to undergo vaccination has had a strong influence on the behaviour of many other religious and faithful of the Russian Church, who are very critical of these health treatments.

On 1 July, the patriarchal administrator Savva (Titunov), Bishop of Zelenograd, issued a special decree obliging monks to be vaccinated. Monks who refused the vaccine would be immediately expelled from the monastery, reduced to the lay state and deprived of any form of support.

The Orthodox authorities had fixed an appointment for the monks for the compulsory vaccination on 3rd July. The imposition of this appointment provoked a strong reaction from the community, and no one showed up for the vaccination. On the same day, Savva had to issue a statement, which was also published in the press, suspending the obligation and threatening expulsion. It stated that 'at the moment the obligation to vaccinate has been suspended. Bishop Pankratij [superior of the monastery] will try to convince the fraternity in a fatherly spirit, and there will be no expulsion from the monastery'.

The igumen Pankratij (Žerdev), bishop of Troitsky, wanted to set a good example. He was one of the first to be vaccinated with Sputnik V, and will now receive a booster after falling ill with the Indian variant (Delta) of Covid, and recovering after treatment in a Moscow hospital. Pankratij had pushed for the monks to be obliged to be vaccinated: now the patriarchate is trying to mediate to avoid rebellions that are difficult to control.

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