Seeking travel freedom, Russians flock to Serbia for Western-made COVID-19 vaccines

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When Russian regulators approved the country’s own coronavirus vaccine, it was a moment of national pride, and the Pavlov family was among those who rushed to take the injection. But international health authorities have not yet given their blessing to the Sputnik V shot.

So when the family from Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia wanted to visit the West, they looked for a vaccine that would allow them to travel freely — a quest that brought them to Serbia, where hundreds of Russian citizens have flocked in recent weeks to receive Western-approved COVID-19 shots.

Serbia, which is not a member of the European Union, is a convenient choice for vaccine-seeking Russians because they can enter the allied Balkan nation without visas and because it offers a wide choice of Western-made shots. Organized tours for Russians have soared, and they can be spotted in the capital, Belgrade, at hotels, restaurants, bars and vaccination clinics.

“We took the Pfizer vaccine because we want to travel around the world,” Nadezhda Pavlova, 54, said after receiving the vaccine last weekend at a sprawling Belgrade vaccination centre.

Her husband, Vitaly Pavlov, 55, said he wanted “the whole world to be open to us rather than just a few countries.”

Russian Vitaly Pavlov receives a Pfizer shot in Belgrade on Oct. 2, 2021. (Darko Vojinovic/The Associated Press)

Vaccination tour packages for Russians seeking shots endorsed by the World Health Organization appeared on the market in mid-September, according to Russia’s Association of Tour Operators.

Maya Lomidze, the group’s executive director, said prices start at $300 to $700, depending on what’s included.

Sputnik V faces hurdles

Lauded by Russian President Vladimir Putin as 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 issues at a production plant a few months ago.

On Friday, a top World Health Organization official said legal issues holding up the review of Sputnik V were “about to be sorted out,” a step that could relaunch the process toward emergency use authorization.

Other hurdles remain for the Russian application, including a lack of full scientific information and inspections of manufacturing sites, said Dr. Mariangela Simao, a WHO assistant director-general.

Workers unload a shipment of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine at an airport in Caracas, Venezuela, on March 29. (Manaure Quintero/Reuters)

Apart from the WHO, Sputnik V is also still 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 yet another delay in September, they started looking for solutions elsewhere.

“People don’t want to wait; people need to be able to get into Europe for various personal reasons,” explained Anna Filatovskaya, Russky Express tour agency spokesperson in Moscow. “Some have relatives. Some have business, some study, some work. Some simply want to go to Europe because they miss it.”

People are seen at a COVID-19 vaccination centre in Belgrade on Oct. 2. (Darko Vojinovic/The Associated Press)

Serbia, a fellow-Orthodox Christian and Slavic nation, offers the Pfizer, AstraZeneca-Oxford and Chinese Sinopharm shots. By popular demand, Russian tourist agencies are now also offering tours to Croatia, where tourists can receive the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine without the need to return.

“For Serbia, the demand has been growing like an avalanche,” Filatovskaya said. “It’s as if all our company is doing these days is selling tours for Serbia.”

The Balkan nation introduced vaccination for foreigners in August, when the vaccination drive inside the country slowed after reaching around 50 per cent of the adult population. Official Serbian government data shows that nearly 160,000 foreign citizens so far have been vaccinated in the country, but it is unclear how many are Russians.

WATCH | Vaccine tourism becomes pandemic travel trend: 

COVID-19 vaccine tourism becomes pandemic travel trend

The long wait for COVID-19 vaccines in many countries is fuelling a trend of travelling somewhere to get inoculated. Some places, including New York City, are encouraging it. 1:55

In Russia, the country’s vaccination rate has been low. By this week, almost 33 per cent of Russia’s 146 million people have received at least one shot of a coronavirus vaccine, and 29 per cent were fully vaccinated. Apart from 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.

Russian Health Minister Mikhail Murashko recently said administrative issues were among the main holdups in the WHO’s review process.

Judy Twigg, a political science professor specializing in global health at Virginia Commonwealth University, expects Sputnik V to be approved eventually, but “maybe not by the end of this year.”

“The WHO has said that it needs more data, and it needs to go back and inspect some production lines where it saw issues early on. Those re-inspections are a multiweek process, with good reason. It’s not something that they just gloss over lightly.”



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