Jun 3, 2021 - World

Eastern European countries fall way behind on vaccinations

Vaccination rates, select regions
Reproduced from Our World in Data; Chart: Axios Visuals

While most countries in the European Union have raced ahead after a slow initial vaccine rollout, countries in Eastern Europe are far behind, with little prospect of catching up quickly.

The state of play: While 39% of people across the EU have had at least one dose, just 12% have in Bulgaria, the lowest rate among the 27 member states. The situation is even more difficult for non-EU members that don’t have access to the bloc’s bulk vaccine purchases.

Bulgaria, the EU's poorest member, declined to order its full share of Pfizer/BioNTech jabs under the EU's procurement scheme, relying mainly on AstraZeneca shots that are cheaper and easier to store.

  • But Bulgaria suspended the AstraZeneca rollout in March after the death of a women who received the vaccine, before resuming it with added restrictions.
  • Vaccine hesitancy is also a major problem. Just 18% of Bulgarians wanted to be vaccinated right away as of February, according to a Eurobarometer poll, while 64% thought the vaccines had been approved too quickly to ensure their safety. Conspiracy theories about the vaccine have spread widely in the country.

The big picture: Bulgaria is actually far ahead of non-EU neighbors like North Macedonia, where just 4.5% of the population — primarily health workers and the elderly — have received a first shot, mostly from supplies shared by Serbia and Russia.

  • The situation is similar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is relying on the WHO-backed COVAX initiative for its doses. They've been slow to arrive, and Bosnia and Herzegovina was one of the last countries to start its vaccination program.

Between the lines: Geopolitical factors have made a big difference for some countries in central and eastern Europe.

  • Serbia was far ahead of even most EU countries on vaccinations for months, with supplies mainly coming from China and Russia, with which Serbia has friendly relations.
  • Serbia even has sufficient supply to begin to share — President Aleksandar Vucic announced Thursday that residents of Bosnia and Herzegovina will be able to receive free vaccinations in Serbia as well.
  • Ukraine, on the other hand, ruled out approval of the Sputnik V vaccine, seeing Russia's "vaccine diplomacy" as an unwelcome power play.
  • Ukraine has been one of the hardest-hit European countries during the pandemic, but just 2.4% of the population has been vaccinated. President Biden announced on Thursday that Ukraine would be one of the countries to receive vaccine donations from the US.

What's next: The European Union has promised to ship over half a million COVID-19 shots to the Western Balkans by August, using for the first time a vaccine-sharing mechanism meant to help its poorer neighbors and counter Chinese and Russian influence.

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