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Out in the cold: SE Europe in dire need of vaccine supplies

With the COVID-19 pandemic steadily worsening across much of Europe, the citizens of the continent’s Southeast European region have been left out of much of the extremely slow distribution of available vaccine supplies.

With the bulk of incoming vaccine supplies from approved producers directed towards the continent’s richest countries (mostly EU member states) who contracted for these early on, a number of countries in the region have been forced to turn to alternate suppliers such as China and Russia. The EU as usual has promised its support and relief funds but with the situation within many EU member states still deteriorating, those promises are understood to be hollow.

EU promises support, making plans for bold actions

European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic has been quoted as informing the first informal General Affairs Council meeting of 2021 (January 18) that the EU has been able to secure vaccines and the Commission should be able to share them with its Western Balkan partners.

He said at that session that the Commission is trying to secure coronavirus vaccines for the countries of the region through its member states individually and also through the WHO’s COVAX initiative.  Sefcovic also said that the Commission is coordinating member states who want to donate vaccines from the joint EU procurement.

A number of EU member states, but especially Greece, have had senior officials from neighboring countries (Albania, North Macedonia) ask for urgent support during brief Athens visits earlier in January.  Greece has frequently tried to cast itself in the role of helpful interlocutor and sponsor for aspiring EU members; when it comes to providing vaccines, the answer may not be so simple.

European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Stella Kyriakides also announced the EU will provide €70 million in grants for the Western Balkans countries to provide coronavirus vaccines.

“We will award a grant of €70 million to the Western Balkans, for the purchase of vaccines from member countries. In cooperation with the member states, we are also working on a mechanism for the allocation of vaccines outside the EU borders, before COVAX is fully operational,” Kyriakides is quoted as saying.

The Commission has also ordered that work accelerate on the creation of an EU vaccine sharing mechanism.

A Serbian soldier receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a makeshift vaccination center in Belgrade, January 19, 2021. EPA-EFE//ANDREJ CUKIC

Most countries are not yet administering vaccinations

Across the Western Balkan region, vaccination programs have begun in Serbia and Albania, but Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, and North Macedonia have not yet reported receiving any vaccine supplies.

Although a candidate for EU membership, Serbia became the first European country to begin a mass inoculation campaign using China’s Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine. Serbia received one million doses of the Sinopharm vaccine last week.

Serbia’s Health Minister Zlatibor Loncar said on January 19 as he became the first person to receive the Chinese vaccine in a live event broadcast on the country’s state television, “It is the only way to return to normal life.”  Loncar added from Belgrade’s virology institute “These are all very safe vaccines.”

Serbia began using the Russian Sputnik-V vaccine on January 6, with some top officials receiving the first jabs to boost public trust in the Russian vaccine.

Serbia and Belarus are the only European countries now using the Russian vaccine even though it does not have WHO or EU approvals, with Hungary moving quickly to adopt the Sputnik-V and Sinopharm vaccines as well.

Serbia expects to receive another 250,000 doses of the Sputnik-V vaccine and 20,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in the coming days; a small initial shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine reached Serbia in December allowing the Prime Minister to receive a showcase vaccination.

Albania launched its vaccination program on January 11, using an initial supply of 975 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine secured via an EU supplier. An additional 2,000 doses were expected to arrive in the period immediately after the launch week, leaving Albanian officials angry and frustrated.  Albania’s government has contracted to purchase a total of 500,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, of which the first 10,000 should arrive sometime over January. Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama his country would be giving “a symbolic number of vaccines” to neighboring Kosovo for the “frontline medical personnel.”

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