North Macedonia speeds up vaccinations as EU aid arrives

World

People wait after being vaccinated at the center for mass vaccination against COVID-19, at A1 Arena in Skopje, North Macedonia, on Tuesday, May 4, 2021. The European Union started delivering EU-funded coronavirus vaccines Tuesday to the Balkans, a region that wants to join the 27-nation bloc but where China and Russia have already been supplying the much-needed shots and making political gains. (AP Photo/Boris Grdanoski)

SKOPJE, North Macedonia (AP) — North Macedonia’s faltering COVID-19 vaccination program picked up speed Tuesday, with authorities starting to use 200,000 Sinopharm jabs bought from China.

The small Balkan country has struggled with vaccine supply shortages. The vaccination program began in mid-February but has continued in fits and starts. About 4% of the country’s 2.1 million people — mostly health workers and the elderly — have so far received a first shot, mostly from batches donated by Serbia and Russia.

Also Tuesday, the European Union’s top official for enlargement, Oliver Varhelyi, delivered about 5,000 Pfizer-BioNTech doses to North Macedonia. That’s part of a batch of 120,000 the 27-nation bloc will donate to the country by the end of August.

“The EU has been at the side of the Western Balkans since the beginning of the epidemic and will continue to help,” Varhelyi said as he presented the vaccines at an inoculation center in the capital of Skopje. “This is just the beginning.”

North Macedonia Health Minister Venko Filipce says the government now hopes to deliver about 15,000 shots daily, up from about 2,000 earlier.

Despite still-high infection rates, the government relaxed pandemic restrictions for Orthodox Easter last weekend and will do the same for next month’s holiday of Eid al-Fitr, observed by the predominantly Muslim ethnic Albanian minority.

As of Tuesday, North Macedonia had recorded nearly 153,000 confirmed COVID-19 infections and about 5,000 deaths.

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Follow all of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic, https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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