Last year, Russian regulators approved Sputnik V, the country’s own coronavirus vaccine, in a moment of national pride that saw citizens rushing to take the injection. But international health authorities have not yet approved the shot.
So when members of the Pavlov family from Rostov-on-Don wanted to visit the West, they began looking for a vaccine that would allow them to travel freely. Their quest took them to Serbia.
Serbia, which is not a member of the EU, 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.
Organised tours for Russians have soared. Now 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”.
Vaccination tour packages for Russians seeking shots endorsed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) 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.
Lauded 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 70 countries, including Serbia. But the WHO said global approval is still under review after citing issues at a production plant a few months ago.
On Friday, a top WHO 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 authorisation.
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.
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,” said Anna Filatovskaya, a spokeswoman for the Russky Express tour agency in Moscow. “Some have relatives. Some have business, some study, some work. Some simply want to go to Europe because they miss it.”
Serbia offers the Pfizer, AstraZeneca 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 a second dose.
“For Serbia, the demand has been growing like an avalanche,” Ms Filatovskaya said. “It’s as if all our company is doing these days is selling tours for Serbia.”
The Balkan nation introduced vaccinations for foreigners in August, when the vaccination drive inside the country slowed after reaching about 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.
In Russia, the country’s vaccination rate has been low. 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 said administrative issues were among the main hold-ups in the WHO’s review process.