Libya finally receives first COVID vaccines

The prime minister took to social media to greet the arrival of the first vaccines, writing “It is the first drop of rain. Thank God, we are able to supply the first batch of corona vaccine”.

Monday 05/04/2021
Workers unload a shipment of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Tripoli, Libya, April 4, 2021. (REUTERS)
Workers unload a shipment of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Tripoli, Libya, April 4, 2021. (REUTERS)

Tripoli -  Amid a rising COVID-19 crisis which the new Libya government of Abdul Hamid Mohammed Dbeibah has put at the top of its priorities, just over 100,000 doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine were flown into Tripoli on Sunday.

Officially the country has has some 160,000 cases of the coronavirus and only 2,737 deaths. However, given the parlous state of testing and indeed, of the whole Libyan health care system, many informed observers believe these figures are considerable underestimates.

According to the National Centre for Disease Control, in recent weeks there have been a thousand new cases reported daily.

Of no less concern was last week’s announcement from the World Health Organisation that two new variants of the coronavirus are present in Libya.

There has been no nationwide lockdown and while masks are supposed to be mandatory,  in the capital Tripoli, very few people are bothering to wear them.

Dbeibah took to social media to greet the arrival of the first vaccines, writing “It is the first drop of rain. Thank God, we are able to supply the first batch of corona vaccine”, adding, “The rest of the shipment will arrive in succession”.

Health minister Ali Zanati said that Sunday’s shipment had been provided by the UAE and that a further million doses of the vaccine were expected on April 11, from a total five million ordered jabs.  Libya’s population is in excess of 6.5 million, though hundreds of thousands have fled abroad, principally to Tunisia and Egypt.

Vaccination with Sputnik V requires two separate jabs. It is available either as a liquid which must be stored at -18 degrees centigrade or as a freeze-dried powder that can be kept at above freezing, between 2-8 degrees centigrade. It was the version requiring the markedly lower storage temperature that arrived in Tripoli on Sunday.

It is also unclear is if the Russian vaccine, which Moscow has priced at $10 a shot, has already been paid for. Mystery surrounds the LD 1.2 billion allocated by the former government of Faiyez Sarraj to order vaccines.  It is not apparent that much, if any, of that money has been spent.

Accusing the previous government of doing very little to combat COVID-19, Dbaibah sacked its special COVID committee, accusing it of incompetence and doing little to order up jabs.

Because the required documentation was not in order, the committee had missed out on the first round of ordering vaccines which would have arrived in mid-March.

After promising from January that the vaccines would be arriving “very soon” the committee finally said on March 9 that they would arrive in two weeks. This also proved to be false.

In February, the disease control centre launched an electronic registration campaign for vaccinations for those aged over 18. No figures are yet available for the number of people who have so far signed up.

Zanati told journalists that Sunday’s vaccines were being distributed to special cooling stores across the country. He also said that the vaccination programme would begin soon and that he would be the first to have the jab.

Priority, he said was to be given to medical staff treating COVID-19 patients inside isolation units, followed by the elderly, those with chronic diseases and then medical workers in different hospitals and medical centres.