On March 11, Serbian President Alexander Vucic announced that Serbia would be setting up a factory near Belgrade to produce Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccines by October 2021, with financial support from China and the United Arab Emirates. The site would represent the first Chinese COVID-19 vaccine production facility in Europe. Vucic noted that the factory, with a production capacity of 2–3 million vaccines per month, would provide a long-term strategic supply of the vaccines for domestic distribution, as well as regional export.
At approximately the same time, it was announced that, by May 2020, Serbia also expected to start producing the Russian Sputnik V vaccine at the Torlak Institute, located in Belgrade, in cooperation with the Russian Direct Investment Fund, Gamaleya Institute, the Russian Ministry of Industry and Trade, and the factory “Gemeriyum” from Vladimir Oblast. Like the Chinese announcement, this is also described as the first such production facility (for the Russian vaccine) in Europe. According to Serbian Minister of Innovation Nenad Popovic, the vaccines produced at this facility would also be for domestic use and export purposes.
Serbia has become a regional leader in vaccine procurement and distribution, providing Belgrade increased influence and prestige in an area where non-EU member states in particular have suffered from lower vaccination rates and limited access. All of the vaccines received, for example, by Montenegro, Macedonia, and Bosnia, have reportedly either flowed through Serbia or were received directly from Russia or China.
Although some of the vaccines received by Serbia (including those they have, in turn, distributed elsewhere in the region) came from Pfizer/BioNTech and Oxford AstraZeneca, Beijing’s – and Russia’s – vaccine diplomacy with Belgrade has been particularly robust and, thus far, successful. At the start of the pandemic, in March 2020, Vucic declared that “European solidarity does not exist,” indicating that “only China can help Serbia fight the virus.” Developments that have unfolded since then have been a reflection of this early sentiment.
The planned Chinese and Russian vaccine production facilities are expected to help Serbia further establish itself as the regional leader in COVID-19 vaccination efforts, likely simultaneously advancing Chinese and Russian interests in the region.