As European states face vaccine shortages, the prospect of immunization trips may be attractive to many – even though the Russian Sputnik V vaccine has not yet been approved for use by the European Medicines Agency (EMA).
- WHO: Slow vaccination against Covid in Europe is unacceptable
In recent weeks, the slow pace of the vaccination campaign in Germany has caused outrage among the population. Some Germans then chose to seek help outside the country’s borders.
The first German tourists on one of these World Visitor packages are due to arrive in Moscow for a first dose of Sputnik V on April 8, with a trip for the second injection scheduled a few weeks later. DW also spoke with representatives of EurAsian Travel, an agency based in Italy that is also analyzing the logistics of vaccination tours.
Officially, however, the Russian authorities have not yet given the green light to vaccine tourism. The borders, by the way, are still closed to the citizens of most EU countries, also to the Germans. “To date, there is no tourist vaccination program in Russia,” said Health Minister Mikhail Murashko, on March 22, stressing that the vaccine is only for residents.
União Química presents the first batch of the Sputinik V vaccine manufactured in Brazil – Photo: União Química / Disclosure
On Monday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov admitted that there were requests to consider “whether foreigners should be able to get vaccinated” and said the issue of organizing the entry of foreigners for the vaccine would be something for the government to consider. However, he stressed that, for now, the “absolute priority” is Russian citizens.
Backstage, Russian authorities appear to be pushing to allow noncitizens to visit for a vaccine against Covid-19. The People’s Front of All Russia, a coalition of public political organizations founded and headed by President Vladimir Putin, has been actively involved in planning vaccination trips. The group even provided a letter of support for the upcoming trips. The document, to which DW had access, would help secure visa applications.
According to him, the vaccination of “Russian and foreign citizens” is an initiative of the “central clinical hospital of the Administrative Department of the President of the Russian Federation” and the Federal Medical-Biological Agency, a national institute of public health.
The People’s Front of All Russia is also supporting World Visitor vaccination tours for Russians living in Germany. Thus, the first 40 citizens who arrive next week will have to pay only for the flight, without spending a penny for their hotel stay or any medical or transport expenses in and around Moscow. It is not clear who covers these costs.
In response to a request for comment, Valery Groyukhanov, coordinator of the All-Russian People’s Front, confirmed that the organization is helping Russians residing in Germany to get the injections: “The vaccine is not available in Germany, so our volunteers are prepared to facilitate the visit of Russian citizens to their country of origin, in order to obtain vaccination against the coronavirus. ”
Goryukhanov did not directly answer DW’s questions about vaccination trips for foreigners. At the time of publication of this article, the Russian Ministry of Health had also not responded to DW’s inquiries about the legal basis for travel for foreigners.
Woman is vaccinated with Sputnik V at the GUM shopping center in Moscow in January – Photo: Shamil Zhumatov / Reuters
Travel, of course, can be a marketing ploy from Russia – if foreign tourists can indeed go, despite the borders being closed. Russia’s first vaccine was called Sputnik V, after the world’s first satellite. This is an allusion to the Cold War space race and a clear indication that Russian authorities view the vaccination campaign through geopolitical lenses..
Sputnik V, one of three Russian vaccines, was hastily launched in 2020, despite reports that the final testing phase has not been completed. Putin says the Russian immunizer is “the best in the world” and boasted that 55 countries have already approved it. According to a study published in the prestigious scientific journal The Lancet, Sputnik V was declared 91.6% effective.
Albert Sigl, co-owner of World Visitor, told DW that the inaugural tours will have a lot of press coverage, with travelers being divided into a “press group”, surrounded by media attention, and one that wants to stay out of sight of the public.
Venezuelan airport officials place packages containing 100,000 doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine against the COVID-19 virus in a refrigerated truck at Simon Bolivar international airport in La Guaria, Venezuela, on February 13, 2021 – Photo: Yuri CORTEZ / AFP
Elisabeth Straub, a Berlin resident, is one of the Germans who plans to travel to Moscow to receive her injection in the second week of April.
“In a pandemic, one should not think too politically. Instead, they should think about how to vaccinate everyone as quickly as possible, to contain the pandemic.” The 56-year-old writer wants to be vaccinated right away because she often has to work in open offices and worry about the possibility of getting sick.
Manfred L., from Mainz, is not entirely at peace with his travel plans. “Of course, I don’t want to become a plaything for the Putin government,” but the “dirty” policy he has observed between governments and within the pharmaceutical industry has convinced him to go ahead with the idea. “I don’t want to play this game anymore. Now I care.” And he adds: “I’m just afraid that if the coronavirus catches me, it catches me for good.”
The 63-year-old German said he was facing criticism from friends and family and that he did not want his name to be published for fear of a public reaction – including for paying to be vaccinated before his turn arrived in Germany.
Economic interests appear to be a crucial factor in offering vaccination packages. They could potentially save Russia’s tourism sector, which lost about 500 billion rubles (R $ 37 billion) due to the absence of foreign tourists in 2020, according to the head of the Russian federal tourism agency.
The same goes for agencies outside Russia: “We, as tour operators, have not been allowed to travel for more than a year,” complains Sigl of World Visitor. “I have no political motivation here. It is just a business model that has emerged.” So far, more than 700 Germans have signed up for a Sputnik V tour with the World Visitor. Sigl says he has firm guarantees from his Russian partners that vaccination tourism will be possible.
The businessman is also in contact with the Russian airline Aeroflot, with whom he would have reserved 650 seats – before the borders opened. In turn, Aeroflot told DW that it “cannot confirm this information”, adding that “we have no data on the organization of vaccination routes for foreign citizens”.
According to Sigl, however, the public denials of the Russian authorities mean nothing. “We cannot trust any of our competitors right now. Officially, everyone will say that they are not doing this.”
However, the economic interest in making vaccination tourism take off is enormous: “This program would allow Aeroflot to put all its planes back in the air,” says Sigl.
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