Albania starts Covid-19 vaccinations as PM blasts slow EU help

Tirana (AFP) –


Albania started vaccinating against Covid-19 on Monday as Prime Minister Edi Rama accused the European Union of leaving the Western Balkans behind in its immunisation efforts, in comments to AFP.

Rama, after receiving his injection inside a Tirana stadium set up for the vaccination programme, said his country had secured these initial Pfizer-BioNTech shots through an EU member state which he was not permitted to name.

"This is a sign of how frustrating the situation is," said Rama, speaking in English.

"In these state-to-state deals, those who want to help have also to be careful to not show off, because then of course they will be assaulted by other requests," he added.

Albania's deal with the EU member included some 975 doses for Monday's launch, with some 2,000 expected in the coming days, he added.

While vaccines have been doled out across the EU in the past few weeks, the action has yet to begin in most states in the poor Western Balkans region, which lies outside the bloc's borders.

The countries are expecting shots reserved through the Covax mechanism, an initiative set up to ensure fair access to lower-income nations, but those deliveries are not expected soon.

In the meantime, governments are racing to procure other vaccines to get started.

When the EU started delivering shots on December 27, it could have given "access immediately also to the non-EU Western Balkan countries to have at least some doses to vaccinate their front-liners," Rama told AFP.

"But they didn't do it."

- More doses due later January -

Later in the month the country expects the first batch of some 500,000 Pfizer-BioNtech vaccines it secured in late December.

Healthcare workers will receive the first shots, starting with those in Covid-dedicated hospitals.

In December, the European Commission announced it would provide some 70 million euros to help Western Balkan states procure vaccines from EU countries to cover priority groups.

But the bloc has been criticised for the slow rollout of shots compared to countries like the United Kingdom.

In Albania and other Western Balkan neighbours, coronavirus infections have started to stabilise following a spike late last year that pushed under-funded healthcare systems to the brink.

But doctors have warned of another surge looming after recent holiday festivities.

In Albania, home to 2.8 people, more than 63,000 have been infected with the virus while some 1,247 have died, according to official figures.