First batch of Covid vaccines reaches north-western Syria

Much of the Idlib enclave is controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist organisation that includes former members of Syria’s former Al-Qaeda extremist group.
Thursday 22/04/2021
Staff of the Physicians Across Continents group unload the first batch of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines in Syria’s rebel-held northwestern Idlib on April 21, 2021. (AFP)
Staff of the Physicians Across Continents group unload the first batch of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines in Syria’s rebel-held northwestern Idlib on April 21, 2021. (AFP)

BAB AL-HAWA, Syria – A first batch of Covid-19 vaccines arrived Wednesday in war-torn north-western Syria, where millions live in dire humanitarian conditions.

The 53,800 AstraZeneca doses were dispatched to the rebel-dominated region as part of the Covax programme, which aims to ensure equitable access to Covid vaccinations.

Around noon, a truck carrying the vaccines passed through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Turkey and Idlib. The vaccines were then unloaded and placed in a cold storage facility.

“Today, we received the first batch of Covid-19 vaccines,” said Abdul Hamid al-Hussein of the Physicians Across Continents group which accompanied the shipment into Syria.

The delivery is the first to Syria by the Covax programme, which has already sent vaccine doses to more than 100 countries and territories worldwide.

The vaccine doses are intended for the extended north-western Syrian region, which includes jihadist-dominated parts of Idlib.

Mahmoud Daher, a senior official with the World Health Organization (WHO) said the UN is ready to administer jabs to the most vulnerable people.

“Once the vaccines arrive, we are prepared to start vaccination to priority groups through our implementing partners,” he said before the vaccines crossed into Idlib.

Covax is jointly led by the public-private alliance Gavi, the WHO and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations.

The first categories of people in the Idlib region to receive the jab in the coming days  will be medical personnel involved in the battle against the pandemic and first aid responders.

The next group will be those aged over 60, followed by people from younger age groups with chronic diseases, said Daher, who is based in the Turkish city of Gaziantep.

Vaccination drive

Much of the Idlib enclave is controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist organisation that includes former members of Syria’s former Al-Qaeda extremist group.

Other regions of Syria will also receive vaccine doses through Covax.

Imad Zahran, a media officer for the Idlib region’s health department, said that the vaccination campaign was expected to begin early next month and would last about three weeks.

According to the WHO, a separate 912,000 doses have been allocated to Syria for a first phase of vaccination in regime-controlled and in semi-autonomous Kurdish areas.

The aim is to vaccinate 20 percent of the population by year’s end.

Vaccination for health workers has started in government-controlled areas but not with doses received as part of the Covax roll out.

The official Covid-19 death toll in Syria is low compared to some other countries in the region but credible data collection across the conflict-ravaged country is almost impossible.

Syria’s war has killed more than 388,000 people since it started in 2011 with the repression of anti-government protests.