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Italian wedding plans and the perils of getting the ‘wrong’ vaccine

The Infodemic is a weekly newsletter, tracking how disinformation surrounding the coronavirus crisis is reshaping our world. In this edition: a personal view on the ways that vaccine inequality is upending lives around the world

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LOVE IN THE TIME OF COVID-19

By Alexandra Tyan

It feels like a twist from some bad Netflix series. I am getting married next week and a new pandemic panic has only added to all the usual pre-wedding jitters: will my family make it to the ceremony? 

My fiancé is Italian and we had planned a small, family service in a castle in Southern Italy. With the help of Green Passes and new regulations, Europe is now opening up, but my family lives in Moscow and our plans have been tangled up in a Kafka-esque nightmare of pandemic-era travel politics.  

For months, I have been navigating the changing rules to make sure that my family — especially my grandparents, who are in their 70s and have never been to Europe before — could attend. 

Both my grandfather and grandmother are vaccinated with Sputnik V, meaning that our plans have hung on whether the European Union would approve the Russian shot for entry. 

It came as a bad sign that Russian tour operators started promoting vaccine trips to Europe a few weeks ago, signaling that, while Sputnik V is likely giving Russians decent protection from Covid-19, it is not enough to allow them to travel. 

Ironically, it also means that Russia has now lost the vaccine tourism game, which the Kremlin had all but declared won just six months ago. Amid Europe’s then slow vaccination rates, travel agencies in Norway, Turkey and Moldova started advertising 23-day “wellness trips” to Russia that featured “relaxing spa treatments” and a double dose of Sputnik V. 

The vaccine tours never really took off. As the World Health Organization and the EU dragged their heels over the approval of the Russian vaccine, demand instead went the other way. 

A MATTER OF APPROVAL 

Only four of the 13 Covid-19 vaccines in production around the world that have passed phase III trials have been officially approved by the EU, while the WHO has greenlit seven. Sputnik V — the Kremlin’s proudest achievement of 2020 — is not on either list. 

Sputnik V’s developers first submitted a request for emergency listing by the WHO in January, but the organization has suspended its approval, citing reasons ranging from manufacturing infringements to lack of data necessary to make a sound scientific decision. The verdict is clear: Sputnik V does not meet the required international standards. 

In June, Prime Minister Mario Draghi of Italy said that Russian vaccines “perhaps will never have the approval” of the European Medicines Agency. Just last week, the U.S. announced it was loosening travel restrictions, but keeping borders closed to people vaccinated with Sputnik V.

While these decisions are based on science,  their implications are political. 

“The explanation is simple: big pharma and political lobbies are afraid, knowing Sputnik V is one of the world’s best vaccines,” read an April 7 post on Sputnik V’s official Twitter account.  

“We stand against attempts to politicize the global fight against Covid-19 and discriminate against effective vaccines for short-term political or economic gains,” read a recent statement issued by the Russian Direct Investment Fund, which invested in and promoted the vaccine. 

VACCINE TOURS

In Russia, where only domestically produced vaccines are available, widespread skepticism has kept uptake low. Only 29% of residents are fully vaccinated. But high demand for European vaccine tours shows that Russians have a lot more faith in Western-made shots. 

Last week, several Russian travel agencies announced the launch of “vaccine tours to Europe. A $1,500 package includes two return trips to Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, complete with accommodation, health insurance, a personal assistant and two Pfizer shots. Sightseeing can be included, for an additional supplement. 

The Moscow-based Russky Express travel agency told me that within two days of announcing the European vaccine tours, all its slots were fully booked for the first three weeks. 

But, in a country where the average salary is about $770 per month, most people will never be able to afford a European vaccine. 

Anna, a 26-year-old logistics manager in Moscow, told me she’d love to purchase a tour and get a Pfizer vaccine because “it opens many borders,” but simply can’t afford it. 

THE ‘WRONG’ SHOT 

While many in the West return to something close to their pre-pandemic lives, much of the world remains unvaccinated and millions more are dealing with the new reality of having the “wrong” vaccine. 

It’s not just the Russians and it is not just Sputnik V. The Chinese Sinopharm vaccine — which was all that was available in many Eastern European countries — has been approved by the WHO, but not the European Medical Association.

The lack of vaccinations in Global South and non-Western nations, which we have covered extensively, is a greater problem. But restrictions on travel for people who have received the “wrong” shots add to a growing sense of vaccine inequality. They could also have profound economic implications and lock millions out of professional opportunities.  

WEDDING NIGHTMARES

Obviously, my problems are nothing compared to the thousands of families whose lives have been destroyed by the pandemic. 

All I had to do was give up on my dream of having my grandfather — who has never left Russia before — at my wedding. In September, we received confirmation: he and my grandmother will not be able to travel to Italy.

Then again, there could be no wedding to travel to next week, anyway, as our big day may have to wait for a little while. 

As I was finishing writing, thinking that things could not get any more complicated, the news arrived that half of my fiancé’s family has tested positive for Covid-19. 

The other half is now in quarantine.

Coda Story’s Mariam Kiparoidze contributed to this week’s Infodemic.Sign up here to get the next edition of this newsletter, straight to your inbox.

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