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Serbia becomes first European county to use Chinese COVID vaccine for mass rollout

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BELGRADE, Jan 19 (Reuters) - Hundreds of members of Serbia's military lined up on Tuesday in their camouflage uniforms at an exhibition hall in Belgrade where nurses injected them with a Chinese-made vaccine against COVID-19.

Last week Serbia received one million doses of Chinese Sinopharm's COVID-19 vaccine, becoming the first European country to start a mass inoculation programme with it.

Serbia is vaccinating essential workers such as police officers, teachers and soldiers after last month starting to treat the elderly in care homes and medical workers with its supplies of vaccines developed by Pfizer and BioNTech , and Russia's Sputnik V vaccine.

Belgrade maintains close ties with Beijing and Chinese companies have invested billions of euros in Serbia, mainly in infrastructure and energy projects.

Defence minister Nebojsa Stefanovic said over 700 members of the military, including himself had been vaccinated with the Chinese vaccine.

"I have been inocculated with the Chinese vaccine which we completely trust ... I've said I will get the same vaccine as our troops," Stefanovic told reporters.

More than 20,000 Serbians have been vaccinated so far since the mass inoculation began in late December.

Over the weekend, President Aleksandar Vucic said Serbia expects to get another 250,000 doses of the Sputnik vaccine and 20,000 doses of Pfizer vaccines in the coming days.

In the Western Balkan region, inoculation has started only in Serbia and Albania, while Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro and North Macedonia have not yet received supplies of any vaccine.

China approved the shot developed by Sinopharm's BIBP in late December, its first COVID-19 vaccine for general public use. No detailed efficacy data has been released, but BIBP has said the vaccine is 79.34% effective based on interim data.

In Serbia, which has a population of about 7 million, 3,771 people have died from COVID-19 and 347,111 fell ill with it.

(Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)