Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic finally rolled up his sleeve for a coronavirus vaccine on Tuesday to encourage his country's increasingly sceptical citizens to get the jabs themselves.
A live TV broadcast showed Vucic, 51, taking a jab of the Chinese-developed Sinopharm vaccine in the remote eastern village of Rudna Glava.
He elected to get the Sinopharm vaccine as some experts have suggested that a third shot of the Chinese vaccine may be required because two doses don’t appear to produce enough protection.
“I received the vaccine, and I feel great,” Vucic said on his Instagram page. “Thank you our great health workers. Thank you our Chinese brothers.”
The populist Serbian president, who rarely wears a protective mask during his frequent public appearances, had promised for months to get vaccinated but found different reasons to postpone the event.
The delay prompted speculation on social media that Vucic was afraid of injection needles, that he did not trust the vaccines, or that he had been vaccinated secretly months ago.
The president's critics said his apparent reluctance helped boost an increasingly strong anti-vaccination movement in Serbia, a traditionally conservative Balkan state.
Serbia has one of the highest COVID-19 inoculation rates in Europe, mainly thanks to the government’s large purchases of the Sinopharm vaccine. The Balkan nation also is using the Russian Sputnik V vaccine and the vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca.
Some 1.5 million of Serbia’s 7 million people have received at least one vaccine dose so far, but the country has seen a recent decline in residents signing up for shots. Officials and doctors link the drop-off to the vocal anti-vaccine movement.
Vucic has taken most of the credit for the successful vaccination campaign, which he linked to his “friendly” relations with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Serbian leader has said Putin personally helped Serbia get emergency supplies of Sputnik V.
Serbia was the first European country to approve and start using both the Sinopharm and Sputnik V vaccines. European Union drug regulators have not yet authorised the use of those vaccines.
Thousands of vaccine-seekers from neighbouring countries flocked to Belgrade last month after authorities offered free jabs to all the foreigners who showed up. The visitors all received doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine that were at risk of going to waste once they expired due to few Serbs choosing to the British-Swedish drugmaker's product.
Serbia has reported about 5,500 virus-related deaths in the pandemic, and daily confirmed cases and deaths remain high despite the vaccination campaign.