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Vaccine tourism. People from all over Europe are traveling to Serbia to get a coronavirus shot. What's the deal?

Serbia has not only become one of the European leaders in vaccinating against Covid but has also provided shots to tens of thousands of foreigners at its own expense. 22.11% of the country's population has been fully vaccinated. Most of the people got the Chinese vaccine produced by Sinopharm, but Russia's Sputnik, Pfizer and AstraZeneca are also available. President Aleksandar Vučić was recently vaccinated with Sinopharm's vaccine and promised to «invest a lot of money in biomedicine». Serbia's success is due primarily to its close ties with China which has donated millions of vaccine doses to Belgrade on unclear terms and continues to ramp up its investment in a region that is on its way to joining the EU.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić is one of the rare state leaders who have managed to turn vaccinations into show, business, and politics. Vučić is trying to make the most of his country's strategic position even in the face of a pandemic, and once again demonstrates to voters and the world that he is a welcome partner for both the West and the East. The country with its population of 7 million, of which nearly 630,000 have been infected with the coronavirus, receives drugs from almost all the major manufacturers - Pfizer/BioNTech, Sputnik V, Sinopharm and AstraZeneca. Belgrade says it has ordered 15 million doses from various companies, although the Serbs themselves have been losing interest in vaccination despite a massive information campaign led by the authorities.

Vučić, who on a daily basis urged citizens to take advantage of the latest scientific achievements, did not get vaccinated until April 6. To get his shot he chose a historical, or rather a prehistoric, place – the village of Rudna Glava, famous for its copper mine dating back to the 5th Century BC. This mine is considered the earliest evidence of metallurgy in Europe and is listed as an archaeological site of particular significance. Archaeologists have found traces of the Neolithic Vinca culture there. Interestingly, the Goddess on the Throne figurine that belongs to this culture is one of the symbols of Serbia's greatness - which it has lost following the conflicts of the 1990s in Kosovo. The figurine is depicted on Pristina's coat of arms. Apparently, all these symbols and signs are not accidental, but, most importantly, the Serbian president's vaccination, about which he had made at least 15 announcements, did eventually take place.

Reports of Vučić's trip immediately drew hundreds of comments from supporters and opponents of vaccination. While some speculated whether it was a real vaccine, others wondered where the Serbian president would get the second shot and whether he would be able to travel to Europe where neither Sputnik V nor Sinopharm's vaccine are recognized.

In the meantime, the Serbian authorities compete with the EU over vaccination rates. Their hospitality has been widely advertised, especially in Italy, where, with the light hand of Corriere della Sera, Serbia has been presented as a country prepared to give any vaccine to any foreigner. As a result, due to the huge number of telephone calls from foreigners, Serbian officials must explain that vaccination is not tourism after all and that foreigners should not travel without a pre-approved vaccination request.

«Vaccine tourism» peaked at the end of March, when tens of thousands of people from neighboring countries came to Serbia amid reports of the Serbian authorities' intent to share their expiring stocks of the AstraZeneca vaccine. These were mainly citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the situation with vaccine availability and mortality rates is much worse, as well as of North Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania, and Croatia. In addition, Vučić sent small batches of vaccine to several countries within the region, even though some failed to appreciate his openness and generosity.

“There has been a mixed reaction in the region. Those who have received the vaccine are happy because they could not have gotten it elsewhere. Some politicians are even grateful, for example, Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who said his government would consider abolishing road tolls for Serbian tourists travelling to Greece this summer as a gesture of gratitude. There are also those who are unhappy, believing that President Aleksandar Vučić is trying to increase his influence in the Western Balkans», Belgrade political columnist Aleksandar Vasovic told The Insider. «In Serbia itself, there are also mixed feelings: some believe that Serbia acted in a decent manner by allowing foreign citizens to get vaccinated, while others insist taxpayers' money should not be wasted that way. And the nationalists oppose vaccination of their former enemies from Bosnia and Croatia.»

Vasovic says vaccination of foreigners was possible in Serbia from the very beginning but was not a priority for the authorities. “The recent wave of vaccinations is due to the expiration of large quantities of AstraZeneca vaccines, so, instead of destroying them, it was better to use them. Many Serbs have refused to get the AstraZeneca vaccine following reports of vaccine-related deaths and illnesses abroad. So, the scale of «vaccine tourism» is largely dependent on the availability of excess vaccines. It is clear that Serbia prefers to use the vaccine primarily on its citizens. A mass vaccination campaign is under way, and only after it is over will the authorities be prepared to use the remaining vaccine on foreigners, the columnist believes.

Citizens of North Macedonia standing in line for vaccination

For the most part, Serbian citizens are being vaccinated with the Chinese vaccine, which is currently the most common in Serbia. According to the Serbian Ministry of State and Local Self-Government, 966,500 people got the Chinese vaccine between January 19 and March 25. Serbia received two million doses of Sinopharm's vaccine over a short period, and the authorities recently ordered another two million, even though the drug has not yet been approved by the World Health Organization and the European Medicines Agency.

The rest of the players on the Serbian market have much weaker positions. During the same period, 152,180 people got the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, and 112,490 got the Russian Sputnik V. 110,948 people were vaccinated with AstraZeneca. In total, 2,834,745 doses were shipped to Serbia by the end of March, including 2 million doses of Sinopharm's vaccine, 342,345 doses of Pfizer, 242,400 doses of Sputnik V and 150,000 doses of AstraZeneca. (Serbia is eligible to receive 345,600 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine through the COVAX mechanism).

It is not known how much Serbia paid for the foreign drugs. So far it has been officially announced that Serbia plans to spend $50-60 million on vaccines.

Vučić is thankful to all vaccine suppliers, but the biggest promotion campaign has been launched for the Sinopharm brand. Openly joyful and in self-confessed violation of protocol, Vučić hurries to the airfield to meet yet another plane with Chinese cargo on board. He says people would build a monument to him if they knew the price, he had to pay for them to get the Chinese vaccine. In gratitude to Chinese comrades for their help in fighting the pandemic, he even kissed the Chinese flag.

The Serbian authorities deny ideological or geopolitical motives in their choice of suppliers. The official explanation is as follows: to save the lives of its citizens Belgrade is ready to accept the vaccine from anyone who can supply it. At the same time, the Serbian authorities do not hope to get significant quantities of Western vaccines. “Almost all of Pfizer’s vaccine stocks, which will be produced in 2021, will go to richer countries, which have already purchased 96% of the drug,” says Prime Minister Ana Brnabic.

Serbian authorities do not hope to get significant quantities of Western vaccines

It seems no one initially counted on Russia as a mass supplier due to its lack of production equipment. However, in the near future Moscow will be able to increase the share of Sputnik V in the Balkans. The Russian Direct Investment Fund and the Serbian Institute of Virology (Torlak) recently signed an agreement on the production of a Russian vaccine in Serbia. Later, it is claimed, it will be possible to export the vaccine to other countries within the region, although nothing has been officially announced about the scale of Sputnik V production in Serbia.

Igor Novakovic, research director at the Belgrade Center for International Politics and Security, told The Insider it would be a mistake to put vaccination issues in a geopolitical context.

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