On December 27, after a long and anxious wait and with great hopes, the EU launched the vaccination campaign against Covid-19, with the first doses of the Pfizer/ BioNTech vaccine injected simultaneously in all EU countries.
Ensuring that Covid-19 vaccines can be accessible to all countries of the globe, regardless of their economic weight. This is the goal of the Covax initiative, which aims to support the development and distribution of two billion doses by the end of 2021. Led by Gavi (Vaccine Alliance), World Health Organization (WHO), and Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), Covax is based on the principle of fair access to vaccines , with benefits for both poor countries, unable to negotiate directly with producers, and rich ones, that will not be safe until the pandemic is globally over.
The following day, the Commission launched a support package for 70 million Euros (through the IPA-II pre-accession funds instrument) for the Western Balkans, to help the states in the area to vaccinate the most vulnerable sections of the population and purchase the equipment and materials necessary for the purpose.
“During the pandemic, the EU has shown that it treats the Western Balkans as privileged partners. We continue to act in this spirit for vaccines”, said Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi. On January 19, Commission sources announced that the EU is today working on a plan to share excess doses with its “poor” neighbours, such as African and neighbouring countries, including the Western Balkans.
However, the EU initiatives have been offset by the concerns and discontent of many countries in the area, which feel marginalised in the race for vaccines and are still struggling to secure the doses necessary to start their own vaccination campaigns. One of the most critical voices was that of Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama. “The EU invited us to invest exclusively in the COVAX system [see box], but following the indications of Brussels we would have had to wait indefinitely”, said Rama on January 11, after receiving the first dose of Pfizer vaccine, part of a donation from Germany .
If the debate on the role of the EU – selfish or altruistic – is probably destined to continue for a long time, one thing is certain: the delays in purchasing vaccines and organising vaccination campaigns in the Western Balkans are a fact.
Serbia and Albania, first of the class
Despite Rama’s Euro-criticism, Albania – together with Serbia – is one of the two countries in the Western Balkans that have already managed to start vaccinations. The first doses – just 975 – came as a gift from Germany. Rama also tried, unsuccessfully, to keep their real provenance a secret.
At the beginning of January, the Tirana government announced a bargain for 500,000 doses of Pfizer/ BioNTech vaccine, of which 10,000 have already arrived on Albanian soil. Rama, however, refused to make the agreement public citing “trade secret”. The vaccination campaign will first of all cover the approximately 23,000 workers in the healthcare sector, together with the over-75s. According to the local press, however, the road to complete the vaccination will be long: the most optimistic forecasts speak of at least 14 months, possibly up to two years .
The situation in Serbia is even more dynamic. Belgrade managed to symbolically start vaccinations as early as December 24, when Prime Minister Ana Brnabić was among the first to undergo the vaccine (Pfizer/ BioNTech, delivered in 5,000 doses). Serbia immediately made it clear that it wanted to look at all possible options to quickly secure significant quantities of vaccines.
On January 6, the first doses of the “Sputnik V” vaccine developed in the Russian Federation arrived in Belgrade. The Serbian government has purchased a total of two mill