BELGRADE — Stained for years by its brutal role in the horrific Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, Serbia is now basking in the glow of success in a good war: the battle to get its people vaccinated.
Serbia has raced ahead of the far richer and usually better-organized countries in Europe to offer all adult citizens not only free inoculations but a smorgasbord of five different vaccines to choose from.
By contrast, the European Union has stumbled badly in providing shots, with a disjointed procurement and distribution strategy that bet big on the AstraZeneca vaccine. That strategy hit a roadblock this week after key members of the bloc, including Germany and France, suspended inoculations with the vaccine over concerns it might increase the risk of blood clots, compounding delivery problems that stemmed from a production shortfall the company announced in January.
Serbia’s unusual surfeit of vaccines has been a public relations triumph for the increasingly authoritarian government of President Aleksandar Vucic. It has burnished his own as well as his country’s image, weakened his already beleaguered opponents and added a new twist to the complex geopolitics of vaccines.
OurWorldInData shows. It has administered 29.5 doses for every 100 people as of last week compared with just 10.5 in Germany, a country long viewed in this part of the world as a model of efficiency and good governance, and 10.7 in France.
Serbia’s prime minister, Ana Brnabic, attributed her country’s success to its decision to “treat this as a health issue, not a political issue. We negotiated with all, regardless of whether East or West.”
applied to join the European Union more than a decade ago, still wants to join the bloc but added that “regulations in the E.U. are very strict. In pandemic times we need to be more flexible.”
The European Medicines Agency, which regulates what vaccines can be used in the bloc, started reviewing the Sputnik vaccine for use less than two weeks ago — more than three months after Serbia placed an initial order with Moscow for a million doses, and two months after rolling them out for general use. The agency has not yet even started reviewing Chinese vaccines.
Mr. Vucic announced last week that Serbia would become the first European country to start producing China’s Sinopharm vaccine. A new vaccine factory, financed by China and the United Arab Emirates, will start production in the fall, he said.
Serbia’s readiness to embrace non-Western vaccines so far shunned by the European Union could backfire if they turn out to be duds. Sinopharm, unlike Western vaccine makers, has not published detailed data from Phase 3 trials. Data it has released suggest its product is less effective than Western vaccines.