Romania has halted the import of most Covid-19 vaccines after a slowdown in its inoculation drive prompted the government to sell more than a million doses to Denmark and seek an extension to the validity of tens of thousands of expired shots.
Many states in central and eastern Europe have similar concerns over falling inoculation rates, which could leave large sections of the population vulnerable to the highly contagious Delta variant of Covid-19 and future strains of the virus.
About 24 per cent of Romania’s 19 million residents have been fully inoculated, but the rollout has faltered in the provinces of the largely rural country due to poor infrastructure, wariness of the state and the spread of conspiracy theories through communities where health education is often poor.
At the same time, a slowing infection rate has weakened the impetus for some in Romania to get vaccinated: only 31 new cases of Covid-19 and five deaths were reported on Thursday, adding to a national total of 1.08 million infections and 33,786 fatalities.
"We have suspended vaccine deliveries, except for doses from Johnson & Johnson," said Romanian deputy health minister Andrei Baciu, adding that 237,000 doses of the one-shot vaccine were expected to arrive in the country on Thursday.
Officials say Romania has received more 16 million doses of several western-made vaccines but less than 55 per cent have been used, as the number of vaccines administered daily has dropped to around 20,000 from 100,000 last month.
Sale to Denmark
The government missed a target to inoculate five million Romanians by the end of May, and this week announced the sale of 1.17 million doses of unused Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines to Denmark.
“In addition to Denmark, there are requests from many other states [for unused doses] which we are working on . . . and we will probably have more news on this next week,” Mr Baciu revealed.
Romania has also asked AstraZeneca to extend the shelf life of 43,000 vaccine doses that expired on Wednesday, following a similar move from Canada's health regulator that resulted in the validity of two batches of vaccines being extended by 30 days.
Neighbouring Bulgaria has the lowest vaccination rate in the EU – with only about 14 per cent of its 7 million people having received one shot and 11.4 per cent being fully inoculated – and it is now debating whether to donate unused doses that are nearing expiry to neighbouring Balkan states or offer them to "vaccine tourists".
In a bid to boost Slovakia's inoculation rate, finance minister Igor Matovic – who was forced to resign as prime minister in March after agreeing to buy Russia's non-EU authorised Sputnik V vaccine – has proposed a weekly lottery in which vaccinated people could win prizes of up to €2 million.