Rostov-on Don's family wanted to visit the West so they searched for a vaccine to allow them to travel. This quest led them to Serbia where hundreds of Russian citizens have been flocking to Serbia in recent weeks to get Western-approved COVID-19 shots.
Serbia, although it is not a member country of the European Union is an attractive option for Russians who are looking to get vaccinated. They can travel freely through the Balkan ally without visas and have access to a variety of Western-made shots. Russians are now more common than ever. They can be seen in Belgrade at bars, restaurants and clinics, as well as on organized tours.
After receiving the vaccine at a sprawling Belgrade vaccination centre, Nadezhda Palova, 54, stated that she took the Pfizer vaccine "because we want to travel the world."
Vitaly Pavlov (55), her husband, stated that he wants the whole world to open up to him, and not just a few countries.
According to Russia's Association of Tour Operators, vaccination tour packages for Russians looking for shots that have been approved by the World Health Organization were on the market in September.
Maya Lomidze is the executive director of the group. Prices range from $300 to $700 depending on what's included.
Sputnik V, which was declared the first COVID-19-registered vaccine in the world by Russian President Vladimir Putin, emerged in August 2020. It has been approved in around 70 countries, including Serbia. The WHO said that global approval was still being considered after it cited issues at a plant where the vaccine was produced a few months back.
A top World Health Organization official stated Friday that legal issues holding up Sputnik V's review were "coming out of the woods," which could allow for a relaunch of emergency use authorization.
There are still many obstacles to the Russian application, such as a lack scientific information and inspections at manufacturing sites. Dr. Mariangela Simao is an assistant director-general of WHO.
Sputnik V, in addition to the WHO approval, is still being inspected by the European Medicines Agency. This will allow for the lifting of travel restrictions for those who have been vaccinated with Russian formula.
Many Russians were frustrated by the long wait. So when the WHO announced another delay in September they began looking for other solutions.
"People don’t want to wait; people must be able to travel to Europe for different personal reasons," said Anna Filatovskaya (Russky Express spokeswoman in Moscow). "Some people have relatives. Some are in business, while others study or work. Others simply miss Europe and want to visit Europe.
Serbia, an Orthodox Christian nation and Slavic country, offers the Pfizer and AstraZeneca shots. Russian tourist agencies now offer tours to Croatia to fulfill popular demand. Tourists can get the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine without having to return for a second.
Filatovskaya stated that the demand for Serbian tours has grown like an avalanche. It's almost as if our company sells tours to Serbia.
Balkan nations introduced vaccinations for foreigners in August. The vaccination drive within the country slowed to around 50% after it reached that level. Official data from Serbia shows that almost 160,000 foreigners have been vaccinated. However, it is not clear how many of these are Russians.
Russia's vaccination rates have been low. Nearly 33% of Russia’s 146 million population had received at least one shot with a coronavirus vaccine by this week. 29% of those vaccinated were complete. Russia has used two other vaccines, both domestically developed and not approved by international authorities.
Recently, Mikhail Murashko, Russian Minister of Health, stated that administrative problems were the major stumbling blocks in the WHO's review process.
Judy Twigg, a Virginia Commonwealth University political science professor who specializes in global health, believes that Sputnik V will be approved at some point, but not before the end of 2012.
"The WHO stated that it requires more data and needs to inspect production lines where it found issues early. These re-inspections can take several weeks and are well-worth the effort. They don't want to ignore it.
In spite of low vaccination rates and resistance by authorities to reimpose restrictive policies, Russia and Serbia have both seen record COVID-19 hospitalizations and COVID-19 infection in the last weeks.
On Thursday, the daily coronavirus death rate in Russia reached 900. This is a double-digit increase from the record 929. The daily death toll in Serbia of 50 people is the highest for months. This country has so far confirmed almost 1 million cases.
Pavlova stated that the Pfizer booster shots offered "double protection" and would enable the family to travel the world with ease, as well as see their loved ones without fear.
The popularity of vaccine tours has exploded over the past month, bringing in new business to Serbian tour operators that were already struggling due to the pandemic. Predrag Tesic from BTS Kompas, Belgrade's travel agency, stated that they are often booked in advance.
Tesic stated that although it started slowly at first, the numbers have steadily grown each day.
His agency arranges everything from airport transportation to accommodation and translations at vaccination points. The Russian guests are also given brief tours of some of the most popular places in Serbia when they return to Russia for a second dose within three weeks.
Some Russian residents back in Russia said that they understand why so many Russians travel to foreign countries for vaccines. Tatiana Novikova stated that she prefers homegrown vaccines.
She said, "I trust theirs more, to have honesty."