Russians are flocking to Serbia for West-made COVID-19 vaccines

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) – When Russian regulators approved the country’s own coronavirus vaccine, it was a moment of national pride and the Pavlov family were among those rushing to take the injection. But the international health authorities have not yet given the Sputnik-V shot their blessing.

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 took them to Serbia, where hundreds of Russian citizens flocked in the past few weeks to receive West-approved COVID-19 syringes.

Serbia, which is not a member of the European Union, is a convenient choice for Russians seeking vaccinations because they can enter the allied Balkan nation without a visa and because it offers a wide range of vaccinations made by the West. Organized tours for Russians have skyrocketed and can be spotted in hotels, restaurants, bars and vaccination clinics in the capital, Belgrade.

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

Her husband Vitaly Pavlov, 55, said he wanted “the whole world to be open to us, not just some countries”.

According to the Russian Tour Operators Association, vaccination packages recommended by the World Health Organization for Russians who want a vaccination appeared on the market in mid-September.

Maya Lomidze, executive director of the group, said prices start at $ 300 to $ 700, whichever is included.

Praised by Russian President Vladimir Putin as the world’s first registered COVID-19 vaccine, Sputnik V was launched in August 2020 and was approved in around 70 countries, including Serbia. However, the WHO said the global approval is still under review after citing problems at a manufacturing facility a few months ago.

On Friday, a senior World Health Organization official said legal issues hindering the review of Sputnik V “will be resolved shortly,” a move that could restart the process towards emergency clearance.

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

Aside from WHO, Sputnik V is still waiting for approval from the European Medicines Agency before all travel restrictions for people vaccinated with the Russian formula can be lifted.

The long wait frustrated many Russians, and when the WHO announced another delay in September, they started looking elsewhere for solutions.

“People don’t want to wait; People have to be able to come to Europe for various personal reasons, ”said Anna Filatovskaya, spokeswoman for the Russky Express travel agency in Moscow. “Some have relatives. Some have a business, some study, some work. Some just want to go to Europe because they miss it. “

Serbia, an Orthodox Christian and Slavic nation, offers the Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Chinese Sinopharm shots. By popular demand, Russian travel agencies are now also offering trips to Croatia, where tourists can get the one-off Johnson & Johnson vaccine without having to return for a second dose.

“For Serbia, the demand has grown like an avalanche,” said Filatovskaya. “It’s like our company only sells tours for Serbia these days.”

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

In Russia, the country’s vaccination rate is low. As of this week, almost 33% of the 146 million people in Russia have had at least one shot of a coronavirus vaccine, and 29% were fully vaccinated. Aside from Sputnik V and a single-dose version known as Sputnik Light, Russia has also used two other domestically developed vaccines that are not internationally approved.

Russian Health Minister Mikhail Murashko recently said administrative issues were among the main obstacles in the WHO 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 said it needed more data and had to review some production lines that it found problems early on. These re-inspections are a multi-week process for good reason. It’s not something they just gloss over. “

Given low vaccination rates and the reluctance of the authorities to reintroduce restrictive measures, COVID-19 infections and hospital admissions have hit record levels in both Russia and Serbia in recent weeks.

The daily coronavirus death toll in Russia topped 900 for the second day in a row on Thursday – one day after hitting a record of 929. In Serbia, the daily death toll of 50 people is the highest in the country in months of 7 so far Million confirmed nearly 1 million cases of infection.

Pavlova said the “double protection” that the Pfizer booster vaccinations offer would allow the family to “not only travel the world but also see our loved ones without fear”.

Since the vaccine tours exploded in popularity about a month ago, they have brought welcome business to Serbian tour operators who were devastated by the pandemic in an already weak economy. The owner of BTS Kompas travel agency in Belgrade, Predrag Tesic, said they were booked well in advance.

“It started out modestly at first, but the numbers have grown well from day to day,” said Tesic.

He explained that his agency organizes everything from airport transportation and accommodation to translations and other assistance at vaccination centers. If they return for another dose in three weeks, Russian guests will also be offered short tours to some popular sights in Serbia.

Back in Russia, some Muscovites said they understood why many of their Russian compatriots were traveling abroad for vaccines. But Tatiana Novikova said homemade vaccines remain her choice.

“I trust ours more, to be honest,” she said.

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Associated press writers Dusan Stojanovic and Ivana Bzganovic in Belgrade, Serbia, as well as Daria Litvinova and Daniel Kozin reported from Moscow.

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Follow AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic

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