Arab countries embark on vaccine race amid surge in infections

On Thursday, Abu Dhabi’s media office announced the emirate had started Phase III clinical trials of Russia’s Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine.
Thursday 07/01/2021
A health worker administers a dose of the coronavirus vaccine to a member of the Transport Authority at a medical centre in the UAE emirate of Dubai. (AFP)
A health worker administers a dose of the coronavirus vaccine to a member of the Transport Authority at a medical centre in the UAE emirate of Dubai. (AFP)

LONDON--A vaccine race has begun across Arab countries amid a surge in COVID-19 infections and growing concerns that the pandemic could spread uncontrollably.

On Thursday, Abu Dhabi’s media office announced the emirate had started Phase III clinical trials of Russia’s Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine.

The human trial, announced in October before the recent rise in cases, is initially seeking up to 500 volunteers to be vaccinated at a hospital in the emirate of Abu Dhabi.

Two doses of the vaccine will be given, 20 days apart, to volunteers, the statement said.

The UAE is also conducting Phase III trials of a vaccine developed by China National Pharmaceutical Group (Sinopharm). The UAE has approved the vaccine and it is available for free to anybody who wants it, with priority given to more vulnerable individuals, according to the health ministry.

Last month, the emirate of Dubai only began inoculating people with the vaccine produced by Pfizer and BioNTec.

Authorities in the UAE, which has a population of around 9 million, say 826,301 vaccines had been administered as of Tuesday, without specifying which type. They added the UAE aimed to vaccine more than 50% of the population in the first quarter of this year.

In October, Sinopharm’s local partner, G42, said it intended to start manufacturing the vaccine in 2021.

A G42 representative told Reuters on Wednesday plans for manufacturing in the UAE were at an advanced stage and more details would be made available soon.

The UAE has seen the number of new daily cases more than double in the past ten days. On Wednesday, the health ministry reported 2,067 new infections, a daily record.

In total, the Gulf Arab state has recorded 218,766 infections and 689 deaths from the virus.

 Tunisia 

In Tunisia, the situation is growing more and more complicated too, with the North African country recording 2,820 new confirmed coronavirus cases, the health ministry said on Wednesday, a record since the start of the pandemic last year.

Seventy more deaths were reported, taking the death toll to more than 5,000, the ministry added.

The total number of cases has jumped to around 150,000.

Tunisia banned travel between the country’s regions and extended a curfew in October, as it tried to contain a rapid surge of COVID-19 cases with hospitals nearly full.

Official figures showed on Thursday Tunisia’s tourism revenue plunged by 65% in 2020 compared to 2019, to around $746 million as the impact of the pandemic dealt a severe blow to the country’s economy.

In 2020, the number of visitors fell by 78%, as Western tourists deserted Tunisia’s hotels and resorts, a government official said. Tunisia had received a record 9.5 million visitors in 2019.

Tunisia’s economy is expected to contract at least 7% in 2020 due to the loss in tourism revenue, which accounts for about 8% of GDP and is a major source of foreign currency.

Central bank data showed that tourism revenue fell to 2 billion Tunisian dinars ($746 million), compared to 5.6 billion dinars ($2.09 billion) the previous year.

Travel restrictions and the spread of the novel coronavirus around the world led most hotels in Tunisia to close and tens of thousands in the tourism sector lost their jobs, which prompted the government to announce facilities in loans to hotel owners.

 Morocco 

In Morocco, another North African country, authorities are racing to avoid a grim scenario, with the Moroccan health ministry approving on Wednesday the COVID-19 vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University for emergency use.

Morocco had announced plans to launch a free vaccination campaign targeting 25 million people, or 80% of its population.

The country has ordered 66 million doses from AstraZeneca and China’s Sinopharm but has not yet received any, Health Minister Khalid Ait Taleb told state 2M TV channel.

The deal with Sinopharm includes technology transfer and the setting up of a production plant in Morocco, he said.

The vaccination campaign would last three months at least in order to achieve population immunity, Health Minister Khalid Ait Taleb said.

On December 23, Morocco imposed a three-week nationwide curfew from 9:00pm to 6:00am and ordered restaurants to shut down in the hard-hit cities of Agadir, Casablanca, Marrakech and Tangier in an effort to control the latest outbreak.

On Wednesday, the country said it had recorded a total of 447,081 coronavirus infections, including 7,000 deaths and 20,719 active cases.

The Moroccan economy is expected to contract by 7.2% in 2020, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), while the government said its 2020 fiscal deficit would surge to 7.5% due to the virus.