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Russians flock to Serbia for Western-made COVID-19 vaccines as infection rate soars

Nadhezda Pavlova from Rostov-on-Don leaves after a vaccination at Belgrade Fair makeshift center in Belgrade, Serbia, Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021.
Nadhezda Pavlova from Rostov-on-Don leaves after a vaccination at Belgrade Fair makeshift center in Belgrade, Serbia, Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021. Copyright AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic
Copyright AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic
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In Russia, the vaccination rate is low with just 29% of the country’s 146 million people now fully vaccinated.


Russia recorded a new daily COVID-19 death toll on Saturday. In just 24 hours, 968 deaths and more than 29,000 cases were registered across the country. Authorities are blaming the country’s low vaccination rate. Just 30.7% of the population is fully vaccinated. 

The Kremlin has rejected the idea that imposing a new nationwide lockdown will curb the infection rate. President Vladimir Putin has instead granted the power to tighten restrictions to regional authorities.

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 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. 

Organised tours for Russians have soared as hoards of vaccine tourists have been 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 center.

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

The Balkan state is one of the few countries in the world that offers four types of vaccines, Pfizer/BioNTech and AstraZeneca, China’s Sinopharm, and Sputnik.

Official Serbian government sources say that nearly 160,000 foreign citizens have now been vaccinated in the country.

Tour operators in Serbia are hoping that tourists making these vaccine tours will help mend their already weak economy, which was further devastated by the virus.

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 (€260 to €605), depending on what’s included.

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 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 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,” explained Anna Filatovskaya, Russky Express tour agency spokeswoman in Moscow. “Some have relatives. Some have a business, some study, some work. Some simply want to go to Europe because they miss it.”


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," 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% of the adult population.

 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.


Still, the vaccination rate remains well below Western countries. More than 63% of the EU and UK's population are fully vaccinated and 55% of Americans are also now fully inoculated.

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 specialising in global health at Virginia Commonwealth University, expects Sputnik V to be approved eventually but not 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."


Amid low vaccination rates and reluctance by the authorities to reimpose restrictive measures, both Russia and Serbia have seen COVID-19 infections and hospitalisations reach record levels in the past weeks.

In Serbia, the daily death toll of 50 people is the highest in months in the country of 7 million that so far has confirmed nearly 1 million cases of infection.

Pavlova said the “double protection” offered by the Pfizer booster shots would allow the family "to not only travel around the world but also to see our loved ones without fear.”

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