Russians flock to Serbia to receive West-made COVID-19 vaccines

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

So when the family from Rostov-on-Don 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 flocked. in recent weeks to receive West-approved COVID-19 injections.

Serbia, which is not a member of the European Union, is a practical choice for Russians seeking vaccines because they can enter the allied Balkan nation visa-free and because it offers a wide choice of vaccines. Western-made. Tours organized for Russians have skyrocketed and they can be spotted in the capital, Belgrade, in hotels, restaurants, bars and vaccination clinics.

“We took the Pfizer vaccine because we want to travel 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”.

Organized vaccination trips for Russians looking for vaccines approved by the World Health Organization appeared on the market in mid-September, according to the Association of Russian Tour Operators.

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

Hailed by Russian President Vladimir Putin as the world’s first registered COVID-19 vaccine, Sputnik V appeared in August 2020 and has been approved in some 70 countries, including Serbia. But the WHO said the global approval was still under review after raising issues at a production plant a few months ago.

A senior World Health Organization official said on Friday that legal issues hampering the review of Sputnik V were “about to be resolved,” a step that could jump-start the authorization process. emergency.

Other obstacles remain for the Russian bid, including the lack of comprehensive scientific information and inspections of manufacturing sites, said Dr Mariangela Simao, deputy director-general of WHO.

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

The long wait frustrated many Russians, so when the WHO announced a further delay in September, they started looking elsewhere.

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

Serbia, a Christian and Slavic nation, offers the Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Chinese Sinopharm pictures. By popular demand, Russian tourism agencies are now also offering tours to Croatia, where tourists can receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in a single injection, without having to return for a second dose.

“For Serbia, demand has increased like an avalanche,” Filatovskaya said. “It’s like everything our company does these days is selling tours for Serbia.”

The Balkan nation introduced vaccination for foreigners in August, when the vaccination campaign inside the country slowed after reaching around 50% of the adult population. Official data from the Serbian government shows that nearly 160,000 foreign citizens have so far been vaccinated in the country, but it is not known how many are Russians.

In Russia, the country’s vaccination rate has been low. This week, nearly 33% of Russia’s 146 million people received at least one injection of a coronavirus vaccine, and 29% were fully immunized. Besides Sputnik V and a single-dose version known as Sputnik Light, Russia has also used two other nationally designed vaccines that have not been approved internationally.

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

Judy Twigg, a political science professor specializing in global health at Virginia Commonwealth University, expects Sputnik V to be finally approved, but not this year.

“WHO said it needed more data and needed to go back and inspect some production lines where it had detected problems early on. These re-inspections are a multi-week process, for good reason. It’s not something they lightly ignore.

Amid low vaccination rates and authorities’ reluctance to reimpose restrictive measures, Russia and Serbia have seen COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations reach record levels in recent weeks.

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

Pavlova said the “double protection” offered by Pfizer booster shots 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 for Serbian tour operators 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 small at first, but the numbers have grown day by day,” Tesic said.

He explained that his agency takes care of everything from airport transport to accommodation, translation and other help at vaccination points. Upon their return for another fix in three weeks, Russian guests are also offered brief tours of some of Serbia’s popular sites.

Back in Russia, some Moscow residents said they understood why many of their Russian compatriots were traveling abroad to get vaccinated. But Tatiana Novikova said local vaccines remain her choice.

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

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Associated Press editors Dusan Stojanovic and Ivana Bzganovic in Belgrade, Serbia, and 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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