When Russian regulators approved the country’s own coronavirus vaccine, it was a moment of national pride, and the Pavlov family were among those who rushed to receive the injection. But international health authorities have yet to give their blessing to the Sputnik V vaccine.
So when the Rostov-on-Don family wanted to visit the West, they looked for a vaccine that would allow them to travel freely, a search that led them to Serbia, where hundreds of Russian nationals have flocked in recent weeks to receive Western -COVID shots- 19 approved.
Serbia, which is not a member of the European Union, is a convenient option for Russians seeking vaccines because they can enter the allied Balkan nation visa-free and because it offers a wide variety of Western-made vaccines. Organized tours for Russians have exploded and can be seen in the capital, Belgrade, in hotels, restaurants, bars, and vaccination clinics.
“We take the Pfizer vaccine because we want to travel around the world,” said Nadezhda Pavlova, 54, after receiving the vaccine last weekend at a sprawling vaccination center in Belgrade.
Her husband, Vitaly Pavlov, 55, said he wanted “the whole world to be open to us rather than just a few countries.”
Vaccination tour packages for Russians seeking World Health Organization-backed vaccines appeared on the market in mid-September, according to the Association of Russian Tour Operators.
Maya Lomidze, the group’s executive director, said prices start at $ 300 to $ 700 (€ 260 to € 605), depending on what’s included.
Praised by Russian President Vladimir Putin as the world’s first registered COVID-19 vaccine, Sputnik V emerged in August 2020 and has been approved in some 70 countries, including Serbia. But the WHO has said global approval is still under review after citing problems at a production plant a few months ago.
On Friday, a senior World Health Organization official said legal issues delaying the Sputnik V review were “close to being resolved,” a step that could relaunch the process toward authorizing emergency use.
Other obstacles to Russian enforcement remain, including a lack of complete scientific information and inspections of manufacturing sites, said Dr Mariangela Simao, WHO deputy director general.
In addition to the WHO, Sputnik V is also awaiting approval from the European Medicines Agency before all travel limitations can be lifted for people vaccinated with the Russian formula.
The long wait has frustrated many Russians, so when the WHO announced another delay in September, they began looking elsewhere for solutions.
“People don’t want to wait; people need to be able to enter Europe for various personal reasons, ”explained Anna Filatovskaya, a spokeswoman for the Russky Express travel agency in Moscow. “Some have relatives. Some have businesses, others study, others work. Some just want to go to Europe because they miss it. “
Serbia, an Orthodox and Slavic Christian nation, offers injections from Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Chinese Sinopharm. By popular demand, Russian tourism agencies are now also offering trips to Croatia, where tourists can receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in one shot, without the need to return for a second dose.
“For Serbia, the demand has been growing like an avalanche,” Filatovskaya said. “It’s like all our company is doing these days is selling tours for Serbia.”
The Balkan nation introduced vaccination for foreigners in August, when the vaccination campaign within the country slowed after reaching around 50% of the adult population. Official data from the Serbian government shows that nearly 160,000 foreign nationals have so far been vaccinated in the country, but it is unclear how many are Russians.
In Russia, the country’s vaccination rate has been low. By this week, nearly 33% of Russia’s 146 million residents had received at least one injection of the coronavirus vaccine and 29% were fully vaccinated. In addition to Sputnik V and a one-dose version known as Sputnik Light, Russia has also used two other domestically designed vaccines that have not been internationally approved.
Still, the vaccination rate remains well below Western countries. Over 63% of the population in the EU and UK are fully vaccinated and 55% of Americans are now as well.
Russian Health Minister Mikhail Murashko recently said that administrative problems are among the main obstacles in the WHO review process.
Judy Twigg, a political science professor who specializes in global health at Virginia Commonwealth University, hopes Sputnik V will eventually pass, but not this year.
“WHO has said it needs more data and needs to go back and inspect some production lines where it saw problems early on. Those re-inspections are a multi-week process, with good reason. It’s not something they just lightly overlook. “
Amid low vaccination rates and the reluctance of authorities to reimpose restrictive measures, both Russia and Serbia have seen COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations hit record levels in recent weeks.
Russia’s daily death toll from coronavirus topped 900 for the third day in a row on Friday. In Serbia, the daily death toll of 50 people is the highest in months in the country of 7 million which has so far confirmed nearly 1 million cases of infection.
Pavlova said the “double protection” offered by Pfizer’s booster injections would allow the family “not only to travel the world, but also to see our loved ones without fear.”
Since vaccination tours exploded in popularity about a month ago, they have provided welcome business to pandemic-ravaged Serbian tour operators in an already weak economy. The owner of the travel agency BTS Kompas in Belgrade, Predrag Tesic, said that they are booked well in advance.
“It started modestly at the beginning, but day by day the numbers have grown quite a bit,” Tesic said.
He explained that his agency organizes everything from airport transportation to accommodation and translation and other assistance at the vaccination points. When they return for another dose in three weeks, Russian guests are also offered short tours of some of Serbia’s popular sites.
Back in Russia, some Moscow residents said they understood why many of their Russian compatriots travel abroad for vaccinations. But Tatiana Novikova said homegrown vaccines are still her choice.
“To be honest, I trust ours more,” he said.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism