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Expand chart
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.

Go deeper

Sep 10, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Former FDA chief: U.S. has to continue to "chip away" at new vaccinations

Screenshot: Axios

The U.S. will have to find new ways to get unvaccinated Americans inoculated against the coronavirus to curb the pandemic, former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb said during an Axios virtual event on Friday.

Why it matters: President Biden announced several efforts to boost new vaccinations, including requiring more than 80 million Americans working in the private sector to receive a COVID-19 vaccine or produce a negative test result at least once a week.

Sep 10, 2021 - World

Russia's Gazprom says Nord Stream 2 pipeline is complete

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Adam Berry/Getty Images

Construction was officially completed Friday on the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will allow Russia to bypass Ukraine in delivering natural gas directly to the heart of Europe, according to Russian energy giant Gazprom.

Why it matters: The $11 billion pipeline has been condemned as a "Kremlin geopolitical project" by the Biden administration and is vigorously opposed by Ukraine, which considers it to be a grave threat to national security.

Sep 9, 2021 - Health

Moderna developing combination booster shot for COVID and flu

Photo: Filip Radwanski/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Moderna announced Thursday that it is in the process of developing a new vaccine that combines a booster dose of its COVID-19 vaccine with a seasonal flu vaccine.

Why it matters: "We believe this is just the beginning of a new age of information-based medicines," CEO Stéphane Bancel said in the press release, which also gave a slew of updates on projects the company is pursuing.