Serbia became the first European country to begin a mass inoculation campaign using China’s Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine, with health officials and hundreds of uniformed soldiers lining up to get their jabs in the capital, Belgrade.
"It is the only way to return to normal life," Health Minister Zlatibor Loncar said on January 19 as he became the first person to receive the vaccine in an event broadcast live on state television.
"These are all very safe vaccines," Loncar said from Belgrade’s virology institute.
Meanwhile, at an exhibition hall in the capital, hundreds of soldiers in camouflage uniforms bared their arms to receive their shots from dozens of nurses.
Defense Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic said that he and more than 700 members of the military had been vaccinated with the Chinese-made vaccine.
The Sinopharm vaccine has become a source of controversy in many Western countries.
China approved the shot developed by Sinopharm's BIBP late last year. No detailed efficacy data has been released, but BIBP has said the vaccine is 79 percent effective based on interim data.
That number is below the efficacy rates of around 95 percent reported by Western-made vaccines, such as those produced by Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna.
Serbia, which last week received 1 million doses of the Sinopharm vaccine, has close ties with Beijing, and Chinese companies have invested billions of euros in the Western Balkan country of 7 million people.
"I have been inoculated with the Chinese vaccine, which we completely trust.... I've said I will get the same vaccine as our troops," defense chief Stefanovic told reporters.
Serbia, which also has close ties to Russia, began using the Sputnik-V vaccine on January 6, with top officials getting the first jabs to boost public trust in the shot.
Russians are also being inoculated with the Sputnik-V vaccine after it was approved by Moscow in August 2020 despite a lack of large-scale clinical trials and perceived shortcomings in data to support its safety and efficacy.
Serbia and Belarus are the only European countries using the Russian vaccine, which does not have the approval of the European Medicines Agency or the World Health Organization.
Serbia launched its coronavirus vaccination program using the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in December 2020 when Prime Minister Ana Brnabic received the shot, which alongside the Moderna vaccine has been approved for use in the EU and North America.
But with supplies of the Pfizer-BioNTech limited for now, Serbia is seeking to diversify its sourcing of vaccines.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic over the weekend said the country expects to get another 250,000 doses of the Sputnik-V vaccine and 20,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in the coming days.
Vucic on January 19 said vaccinations will be administered at some 300 locations in Serbia's biggest cities. He added that he will receive his dose this weekend.
Serbia is vaccinating essential workers such as police officers, teachers, and soldiers after it last month began to treat the elderly in care homes and medical workers.
Serbia has recorded 3,771 deaths from COVID-19 and 347,111 overall cases.
In the Western Balkan region, vaccinations have begun in Serbia and Albania, but Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, and North Macedonia have not yet received vaccine supplies.