Belgrade – Serbia has for years been tainted by its brutal role in the horrific Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, and is now enjoying the joy of success in a good war: the battle of vaccinating its own people.
Serbia raced to the usually wealthiest and most organized countries in Europe to offer all adult citizens not only free vaccinations but a batch of five different vaccines to choose from.
By contrast, the European Union has faltered badly in providing shots, with a disjointed buying and distribution strategy betting heavily on the AstraZeneca vaccine. That strategy faced a roadblock this week after key members of the bloc, including Germany and France, Pending vaccinations With the vaccine due to concerns it might increase the risk of blood clots, exacerbating delivery problems caused by the production shortfall the company announced in January.
The unusual surplus of vaccines in Serbia was a public relations victory for the increasingly authoritarian government of President Aleksandar Vucic. He refined his image and that of his country, weakened his already besieged opponents and added a new twist to the complex geopolitics of vaccines.
“Someday you will erect a memorial for me!” Mr Vucic predicted last month, bragging that he got low-priced supplies of Chinese vaccines by appealing to China’s leader, Xi Jinping personally, for help.
Instead of leaning east or west in an effort to secure supplies, Serbia, which has a population of less than 7 million, has placed sweeping bets, and struck initial deals of more than 11 million doses with Russia and China, whose products have not been approved by European regulators, as well as With western pharmaceutical companies.
It reached its first vaccine deal, covering 2.2 million doses, with Pfizer in August, and it was quickly followed by contracts for millions more from Russia and China. The amount I paid is a secret, but Health Minister Zlatibor Luncar said in an interview that the prices were “much better than what anyone else in the world has gotten”.
Opposition politicians doubt this and question whether secrecy is a cover for corruption. But even the most outspoken critic of Mr. Vucic, the leader of the biggest opposition party, Dragan Gilas, admits: “He’s done a good job getting the vaccinations.” Last month, Mr. Gilas was injected with the fifth Sputnik from Russia.
As a result of its abundant supplies, Serbia has become the best pollinator in Europe after Britain, according to data collected OurWorldInData Offers. It has given 29.5 doses per 100 people as of last week compared to just 10.5 in Germany, a country long seen in this part of the world as a model for efficiency and good governance, and 10.7 in France.
Serbian Prime Minister Anna Bernabic attributed her country’s success to her decision to “treat this as a health issue and not a political issue. We have negotiated with everyone, regardless of whether it is East or West.”
In an interview, Serbia said that Apply to join the European Union More than a decade ago, he still wanted to join the bloc but added that “regulations in the European Union are very strict. In times of pandemic, we need to be more flexible.”
The European Medicines Agency, which regulates vaccines that can be used in the cluster, He began to review Sputnik Vaccine For use less than two weeks before – More than three months after Serbia submitted an initial request with Moscow for a million doses, and two months after it was put up for public use. The agency has yet to start reviewing Chinese vaccines.
Last week, Mr. Vucic announced that Serbia would become the first European country to start producing the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine. He said a new vaccine plant, funded by China and the United Arab Emirates, will start production in the fall.
Serbia’s willingness to embrace non-Western vaccines that the European Union has so far avoided may backfire if they turn out to be useless. Unlike Western vaccine makers, Sinopharm has not published detailed data from Phase 3 trials. Data issued by him It indicates that its product is less effective than Western vaccines.
And many Serbs, apparently reassured by the vaccination campaign, also played down their caution about the risk of infection. The daily number of new cases has more than doubled since early February, prompting the government to order the closure of all businesses except for food stores and pharmacies at the end of last week.
But for now, Serbia is enjoying its unusual role as a competency model.
Mr Lonkar, Minister of Health, blamed the European Union for stumbling in its focus on Western brands, preferring European ones, to the detriment of vaccines produced by Russia and China. “We are very happy that we can solve this problem by ourselves,” he said.
Providing vaccines in a country of only 6.9 million people according to official figures, but perhaps even less, is much easier than it is in the European Union, which has about 450 million people. However, Serbia has largely avoided the bureaucratic bickering and geopolitical traps that have impeded the vaccine deployment elsewhere.
At a time when most countries, including the United States, have focused their early vaccination programs on priority groups such as medical workers and the elderly, the Serbian government is now offering free shots to everyone over the age of 18.
Everyone who wants a vaccine just needs it Fill out an online form And decide if they don’t care what brand they’re getting or prefer either Pfizer-BioNTech, Sputnik V, Sinopharm, AstraZeneca, or Moderna.
However, not all of these vaccines are equally available and dosage dates depend on the option chosen. Those who want a moderna vaccine will wait a long time: it has not yet arrived in Serbia. The Serbian Ministry of Health had no immediate comment on Tuesday about whether to follow Germany and others and stop vaccinations with the AstraZeneca vaccine.
On a recent day at the country’s largest vaccination center, at the Belgrade Fair, a sprawling exhibition complex in the Serbian capital, more than 7,000 people attended for appointments.
Almost all of them received the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine, which, according to clinical trials, has an effective rate of 79 percent, which is lower than Western and Russian vaccines.
There were also a few stalls offering the Russian Pfizer and Sputnik V vaccine, but apparently supplies from the Chinese supply were more abundant.
Dragana Milosevic, the doctor overseeing the injection, said what is available on any given day varies with deliveries from stock run by the central government.
“I didn’t expect it to be that easy,” said Biljana Stankovic, a 37-year-old molecular biologist who was waiting to be called into the vaccination room. She said she did not care what was given to her. She added that she did not share Mr. Fucik’s political views, but “I am happy and amazed that everything is so well organized.”
With the exception of Hungary, the only other European country to embrace Sputnik V, European countries have tied themselves over whether to use non-Western vaccines.
In Slovakia, the health minister was forced to resign last week over his decision to issue a purchase order for Sputnik V, which some of his fellow ministers denounced as a “hybrid war tool”. Hungary was widely accused of breaking the ranks of the European Union and approaching Moscow by using Sputnik.
Serbia was pleased with the emergence of the European Union not only at home but in other countries that arose out of the collapse of Yugoslavia. Kosovo, which had put its hopes of receiving the vaccine in aid of the European bloc, has not yet received any vaccines, other than those provided by Serbia, which started a vaccination program in Serbian ethnic enclaves, but the ethnic Albanian government of Kosovo ordered it to be stopped.
Bosnia also received small shipments of vaccines from Serbia, as did North Macedonia (formerly Macedonia), a troubled new country created after the collapse of Yugoslavia.
The EU vaccines have angered Serbs who believe their future lies in Europe, not Russia or China. “I failed at the most dangerous time,” said Zoran Radovanovic, a retired professor of epidemiology.
He said he detested the direction Mr. Vucic had taken to the country by curbing media freedom and harassing critics. But Mr. Radovanovic added: “Contrary to many other false promises and statements by Vucic, this is not just propaganda. Vaccines are a real thing. We have them.”