BRUSSELS — More than 70 percent of the European Union’s adult population is fully vaccinated, making it one of the world’s vaccine leaders. But some Eastern European countries are lagging far behind, exposing the bloc to new waves of infections and creating a rift that EU officials and experts say could hamper recovery efforts.
While 80 percent of the adult population in countries like Belgium, Denmark and Portugal is fully vaccinated, in Bulgaria that figure drops to just about 20 percent, while in Romania it falls below about 32 percent, according to European authorities.
The high numbers in Western European countries is an achievement few would have thought possible earlier this year, when EU member states, mired in slow implementations, argued with bloc officials and vaccine makers over supply problems.
But vaccination rates in Eastern and Central Europe are all below the bloc average, with Bulgaria and Romania the strongest examples. Those countries, along with the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, also have some of the highest excess death rates in the entire European Union during the pandemic — a measure of the number of deaths caused by the coronavirus.
In many cases, vaccination programs in the European Union have been successful, despite a slow start that has likely caused thousands of additional deaths.
Twenty-two of the bloc’s 27 member states have now fully vaccinated more than half of their population. And EU officials have argued that smaller, poorer countries would have struggled to obtain doses on their own if the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, had not been given vaccines on behalf of national governments.
But vaccination rates have fallen in recent weeks, especially in countries like Poland and Slovakia, and deaths have soared in countries like Bulgaria and Romania, sparking concern from bloc authorities.
“We cannot afford to have less protected parts of Europe, this makes us all more vulnerable,” said Stella Kyriakides, the European Union’s health commissioner.
Countries like France and Germany are about to vaccinate millions with booster shots. Spain aims to inoculate 90 percent of the total population soon. And Italy is considering making vaccinations mandatory. But large parts of the population of Eastern European countries have not yet received a single dose.
“The story we hear about the pandemic in France, Germany or the Netherlands is very different from the story we hear in Bulgaria or Poland,” said Ivan Krastev, a Bulgarian political scientist and co-author of a report on the perception of the pandemic. in 12 EU countries.
The scarcity of doses that haunted early vaccination campaigns across the bloc is no longer an issue. Instead, misinformation, mistrust of authorities and ignorance about the benefits of inoculation appear to be the cause of low adoption in Central and Eastern Europe.
The World Health Organization warned last month that 230,000 people in Europe could die from the coronavirus in December, citing slower vaccination rates and the lack of restrictive measures to contain the spread.
The situation is even more dire in some neighboring countries of the European Union, which has promised to supply the bloc with vaccine doses. Only 23 percent of Albania’s total population is fully vaccinated, dropping to 11 percent in Georgia and 3 percent in Armenia.
A spate of deaths from the coronavirus in the autumn and winter could cast a shadow over the success story EU officials have touted in recent weeks.
“Europe’s Covid-19 experience was a story of two pandemics – and the differences in each story could haunt the continent for many years to come,” noted the report, co-authored by Mr Krastev, published by the European Council. at Foreign Relations, a research institute.
Bulgaria, which has the lowest vaccination rate in the European Union, also has the bloc’s highest death rate, adjusted by population. “Last place in vaccinations ranks us first in mortality,” Health Minister Stoycho Katsarov acknowledged this month. “That’s the logical connection.” Authorities this week introduced new restrictions on hospitality and cultural venues to try to stem a surge in cases and deaths.
In Romania, vaccine uptake was once among the highest in the European Union, but it has slowed so much that EU officials are wondering whether it has reached a glass ceiling yet.
Many in towns and small towns have shunned the shots, with some falsely believing myths, including that vaccines are more dangerous than the virus.
Access is not the problem, says Romania’s head Valeriu Gheorghita. “We have fixed vaccination centers, mobile vaccination centers, drive-in vaccination centers.” he said, and yet, he noted, more than half of the people in the countryside had yet to be vaccinated.
Romania has had to sell or donate millions of unused doses, including to other EU countries; Bulgaria has also passed on hundreds of thousands.
According to the medical journal The Lancet, Roma, who make up about 10 percent of the population of Romania and Bulgaria, are even less willing to get vaccinated. Activists in both countries have criticized their governments for not adequately involving the group in their vaccination efforts.
In Bulgaria, as coronavirus wards in hospitals fill up, Black Sea resorts are teeming with tourists. In Sofia, the capital, vaccinations have been reduced to a trickle and the vaccination centers are largely empty.
Speaking at a center this month, Mariela Metodieva, 34, said she had decided to get vaccinated after a vaccinated friend became infected with Covid-19 and developed only mild symptoms, while several unvaccinated family members were admitted to intensive care.
Ms Metodieva, a shop assistant, said she still had doubts about the efficacy and safety of the shots. “We are either going to die from Covid-19 or from the vaccine,” she said.
Studies have shown that side effects caused by the vaccines are extremely rare, but Bulgarian news channels have given skeptics a huge platform.
Political instability has also exacerbated vaccination efforts in Bulgaria as the country faces its third national election in a year. “The political elite has not taken responsibility for pushing for a nationwide vaccination campaign,” said Vessela Tcherneva, the deputy director of the European Council for External Relations and the head of the Sofia office.
There are other, structural problems, Ms Tcherneva added, noting that sentiment against vaccines in Eastern and Central Europe was rooted in a deep distrust of state institutions. That could explain why governments have been reluctant to implement vaccine mandates like those imposed in France and Italy, she said.
The European Commission says it has helped governments fight misinformation, but EU officials have limited influence, as member states are in charge of their own vaccination campaigns.
“The European Commission has done everything it could do,” said Ms Tcherneva. “It can help countries buy vaccines, which it has done, it can ensure that all EU citizens have access to them, but it cannot force or push governments to administer them.”
Elian Peltier and Monika Pronczuk reported from Brussels, and Boryana Dzhambazova from Sofia, Bulgaria. Kit Gillet contributed reported from Bucharest, Romania.