Left out by EU, Balkan nations turn to Russia, China for vaccine

Nearly two months after the European Union started its vaccination campaigns, four out of six countries in the Western Balkans have yet to begin.

With climbing coronavirus cases and still no clear timeline on when vaccines from the COVAX mechanism and EU procurement scheme will be delivered, many countries are now looking towards China and Russia for solutions.

The moves come as wealthy nations have been criticised for taking the bulk of this year’s vaccine supply.

Israel has the highest number of inoculations in the world per capita, followed by the UAE, the UK, Bahrain, the US and EU member states Italy, Germany and France.

To compare, 60 percent of Israel’s population has already received at least one shot, as other countries relying on COVAX and the EU procurement mechanism, such as Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Kosovo, are yet to start vaccine drives.

Montenegro currently has the highest number of coronavirus cases per capita in Europe (9,910 infected per 100,000 people) while Bosnia and Herzegovina has one of the highest COVID related mortality rates in Europe (4,775 deaths with a population of 3.5 million).

To address the pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) set up COVAX in April to ensure that all participating countries worldwide, regardless of their wealth will have equal access to vaccines.

Serbia paid four million euros ($4.8m) to COVAX last year, but with the unexplained prolonged delay from the EU, it began making its own bilateral deals with Russia and China.


The country now leads continental Europe with the highest inoculation rate, having vaccinated 550,000 people so far out of a population of seven million.

Serbia, a model of success?

From mid-December until the end of January Serbia procured 1.1 million vaccines, according to authorities, one million of which were Chinese vaccines and the rest consisting of Russia’s Sputnik V and the US-German Pfizer-BioNTech shots. Serbia is also the first country in Europe to secure vaccines from China’s Sinopharm.

President Aleksandar Vucic announced at a news conference on Tuesday that by the end of February, Serbia will have two million vaccine doses in stock from various manufacturers.

The country also plans to start domestic production of Sputnik V by the end of the year.

In Late January, Vucic compared the world’s scramble for vaccines, or so-called “vaccine nationalism”, with the Titanic, telling viewers in his Instagram video that “the rich try to secure rescue boats only for themselves”, leaving the poor to drown.

Last week, he continued to criticise countries who were buying more vaccines than needed.

“It’s as if they intend to vaccinate all their cats and dogs,” he said.

WHO Europe Director Hans Kluge echoed the same message last week when he called for richer nations to share their doses with poorer nations, unable to buy vaccines.

“We know that in the EU, Canada, UK, US, they all ordered and made deals for four to nine times more doses than they need,” Kluge told the AFP news agency.

“So my point here is, don’t wait until you have 70 percent of the population [vaccinated] to share with the Balkans, to share with central Asia, Africa.”

Adi Cerimagic, an analyst at the EU-based European Stability Initiative, told Al Jazeera that the number of vaccines needed to inoculate the region’s health workers was relatively lower than the EU’s daily vaccinations.

Late last month on Twitter, he said between 50,000 and 100,000 doses were required for four Western Balkan countries to vaccinate their health workers – which amounted to the total number of vaccines administered in Germany in just one day.

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