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25th Jul 2021

EU sends vaccines to Balkans, in wake of China and Russia

  • Most doses will go to Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia - where only a tiny percentage of the population has received a jab so far (Photo: European Commission)

The European Union announced on Tuesday (20 April) that it is sending 651,000 BioNTech/Pfizer coronavirus vaccines to the six Western Balkan countries, which are not part of the bloc.

"This must be taken as an important sign that the EU and its member states do care about this region," EU commissioner for enlargement Olivér Várhelyi told a news conference.

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The vaccines deliveries will start in May and continue with monthly allocations until August.

The distribution between countries will be based on epidemiological needs rather than on a population-based pro-rata basis.

As a result, most doses will be delivered to Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia, where only a tiny percentage of the population have received a jab.

According to the EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, 145,000 doses will go to Albania, 214,000 to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and 119,000 to North Macedonia.

The remainder will go to Kosovo (95,000 doses), Montenegro (42,000) and Serbia (36,000).

While vaccines are primary aimed at medical workers and other vulnerable groups, the recipient countries themselves will decide on the strategy.

However, according to Várhelyi, it is in their own interest to start the vaccination campaign with the health care workers so those staff can continue working to deflect the pandemic.

Despite national criticisms over the slow vaccination coverage in Austria, Vienna has facilitated the legal arrangement for the contracts between the vaccine producer BioNTech/Pfizer and the neighbouring countries in the Western Balkans, and has pre-financed the jabs.

But the cost of the doses will be reimbursed by the EU from the €70m package adopted last December to cover vaccine costs, secured under the EU's advance purchase agreements for this region.

"After all, blank spots on the vaccination map, wherever they may be, pose a danger to all of us," said Austrian foreign minister Alexander Schallenberg.

Meanwhile, the lack of vaccines in the Western Balkans has also triggered a race to show geopolitical leadership.

However, the EU has been lagging behind Russia and China in sharing vaccine doses with the Balkan countries, which have been mostly relying on the EU-supported global vaccine distribution facility COVAX that has already supplied the region with 258,600 jabs.

Serbian vaccine diplomacy

Serbia, for its part, is also exercising its own vaccine diplomacy in the region, thanks to a strategy that also includes shots developed by Russia and China.

The country of seven million people has one of the world's highest vaccination rate per capita. About one-quarter of its population has already received the first dose, and 18 percent is fully vaccinated, according to the site Our World in Data.

Last month, Belgrade announced the delivery of 10,000 doses of AstraZeneca's vaccine to Bosnia and Herzegovina, where some 15,000 vaccine doses have been administered so far.

But it had also previously donated 2,000 doses of Sputnik V to Montenegro and 4,680 doses of the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine to North Macedonia.

Now Serbia is also inoculating foreigners for free, mainly from neighbouring countries.

Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic took the Chinese-developed shot earlier in April, in a bid to encourage others to get the jab - amid growing vaccine scepticism and hesitancy in the Balkan state.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the EU has mobilised €3.3bn to provide emergency medical equipment like masks or ventilators and strengthen healthcare facilities.

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