WESTERN BALKANS – As the countries of the Western Balkans strive to secure sufficient supplies of COVID-19 vaccine, many questions remain unanswered – how many will there be, when will vaccination start and how much will it all cost? All Western Balkan countries are stepping up preparation for a vaccine rollout and are part of the COVAX system, launched in April by the World Health Organization (WHO), the European Commission and France to provide access to COVID-19 diagnostics, treatments and vaccines.
On Monday, the European Commission adopted a package of 70 million euros under the Instrument for Pre-Accession (IPA II) to help fund the access of Western Balkans to COVID-19 vaccines procured by EU member states.
“Through the pandemic, the EU has shown that we treat the Western Balkans as privileged partners. We continue to act in this spirit also in the case of vaccines, by taking steps to enable a quick start of vaccination campaigns to critical staff and most vulnerable groups in the region early on. Swift vaccination will be decisive in ending the pandemic and launching the socio-economic recovery of the Western Balkans”, said Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi, it was stated in a press release.
According to the EC, the package will be disbursed in the form of grants that will help cover the cost of the vaccines for priority groups in the region, as well as necessary vaccination equipment. It will enable the Western Balkans to purchase a number of vaccines from the EU Advance Purchase Agreements with six manufacturers, with individual EU Member States sharing a part of their pre-allocated doses.
For some, COVAX is the only way
For some Western Balkans countries, COVAX system will be the only way for procurement of vaccines.
According to Vijesti, Montenegro is so far relying solely on COVAX, which it signed up on October 9. Podgorica agreed to pay 646,000 euros for 248,800 doses, or enough for 20 per cent of the population.
The health minister at the time, Kenan Hrapović, said the COVAX initiative was “the most favourable option for all less developed countries and countries in transition, including Montenegro, in terms of procurement of vaccine for COVID-19, because it provides a high degree of safety and transparency.”
North Macedonia, a country of just over two million people, also expects to receive 800,000 doses via the COVAX initiative, with the government already setting aside 6.7 million euros to pay for it.
Skopje is also looking at ways to secure another 800,000 doses directly from manufacturers, including Pfizer and AstraZeneca.
North Macedonia has preordered 833.000 vaccine doses, estimated to be delivered by the beginning of the new year.
Euronews Albania correspondent in North Macedonia Ferikan Iljazi said that no date has been confirmed, but the vaccines are most likely expected to arrive in January.
Iljazi said that if the first vaccines arrive in January, the vaccination campaign will begin in March after training medical staff.
“We don’t have a fixed date yet, but the word out is that the first vaccine doses will arrive in January. To start off, they will arrive as a donation from Bulgaria given that other supply procedures might be delayed for our country, such as those preordered directly from the producer or through COVAX
Kosovo signed up to the COVAX initiative this month, with Health Minister Armend Zemaj announcing on Facebook that 360,000 doses would be provided for free. Zemaj has said the country plans to secure a total of 1.2 million through different channels.
Ismete Humolli of the WHO in Kosovo told Voice of America that vaccinations in the country may begin in mid-March or early April.
Albanian Government Promises Vaccination Plan in First Week of January
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama has announced the government is close to finishing a plan for vaccination against COVID-19, Exit News reported.
During a meeting with the doctors at the Infectious Diseases Hospital, Rama said the first to be vaccinated would be the medical staff.
“I am very careful in words but we are very close to concluding an agreement with some entities for the vaccine so I hope that at the beginning of the year we will have the first doses, which are certainly for you [the doctors].
The US has imposed an export ban on the vaccine. That is a problem. Despite the agreement with Pfizer, we are very close to Astra Zeneca”, said Rama.
Rama previously met with the Head of Pfizer at the beginning of December. No details of any agreement were announced.
He added that the vaccination of doctors will take place in the Air Albania stadium.
“The vaccination teams will be placed in the Air Albania stadium because it’s better to do so in outdoor spaces and avoid queues. It will be a very beautiful project and it will be ready in the first week of January.
The Russian Embassy in Albania has urged the Albanian government to negotiate with Russian authorities to purchase their ‘Sputnik-V” vaccine against COVID-19.
It follows criticism by Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama against the EU for ignoring Western Balkan countries in their plan to distribute the vaccine.
On Monday, the Russian embassy replied to a tweet by Rama’s senior advisor Endri Fuga, in which he also complained about the EU policy towards the Western Balkans.
“Dear Mr. Endri Fuga, we would like to inform you that the Russian Direct Investment Fund is authorized to negotiate with countries that are interested in purchasing vaccines against COVID-19. We have no doubt that Russia is ready to bring its “Sputnik-V” vaccine to Albania as well,” they informed the prime minister’s advisor.
The embassy further informed Fuga about the high demand and advantages of “Sputnik-V”.
Besides COVAX, Serbs eye Russian and Chinese vaccines too
Exactly 293 days after the first case of COVID-19 was recorded in Serbia, vaccination against the coronavirus, which has so far claimed more than 1.7 million lives worldwide, has begun.
Although the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, previously announced that a million doses would arrive in Serbia at the end of December, 5,000 doses of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were delivered, which is already in use in the United States and United Kingdom.
According to President Aleksandar Vučić, Serbia has so far secured 1.8 million vaccine doses via COVAX, with a first shipment of 10,000 expected in December, a further 340,000 in Q1 2021, 500,000 in Q2 and Q3 and 450,000 in the last three months of the year.
Vučić said it looked likely to be Pfizer, but that Belgrade was also negotiating with Russia and China.
“We negotiate with everyone else who could also provide the vaccine, since we need much larger quantities,” Vučić told media.
But it is not known how much money Serbia put into the COVAX system or into bilateral deals with other countries or companies. BIRN asked the health ministry for details but received no reply.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the state government says the country should receive 1.23 million vaccine doses next year via the COVAX system.
The government says this will cover roughly 20 per cent of the population on the assumption the vaccine requires two doses.
But just like Serbia, the mainly Serb-populated Republika Srpska is also bidding for the Sputnik vaccine produced by Russia.
“We are intensively negotiating with the competent Russian institutions on the delivery of the Sputnik vaccine, and, realistically, the first contingent will be delivered to Republika Srpska in February next year,” Duško Perović, head of the Republika Srpska Representation in Moscow, told the Srna news agency on December 7.
For the vaccine to be used legally, however, it needs approval from the Bosnian Agency for Medical Products and Medical Devices, not merely Republika Srpska’s health ministry.