New Arab countries join the drive for free public vaccination

Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain announce plans to give the public free vaccines.
Friday 11/12/2020
A Bahraini man participates in a large-scale trial of a Chinese-sponsored vaccine for the Covid-19 coronavirus in the Bahraini capital. (AFP)
A Bahraini man participates in a large-scale trial of a Chinese-sponsored vaccine for the Covid-19 coronavirus in the Bahraini capital. (AFP)

CAIRO – A coronavirus vaccination drive is beginning in Arab countries, months months after many have struggled to contain the spread of the disease and counter a surge in cases, which has sparked fears of more damage to already burdened health infrastructures and faltering economic recoveries.

Bahrain this week announced plans to give the public free vaccines, as Saudi Arabia said it approved an inoculation by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech to fight the pandemic.

Egypt, too, said it received its first shipment of vaccines developed by China National Pharmaceutical Group (Sinopharm) late and will get more deliveries soon.

A hope to vaccinate thousands

The island nation of Bahrain, off the coast of Saudi Arabia, made the vaccine pledge in an announcement published late Thursday by its state-run Bahrain News Agency.

“A safe vaccine will be provided free of charge to all citizens and residents within the kingdom,” the statement said, without elaborating on which vaccine it would offer.

Bahrain plans to inoculate everyone 18 years and older in the kingdom at 27 different medical facilities, hoping to be able to vaccinate 10,000 people a day. Bahrain, an island in the Persian Gulf home to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet, has a population of around 1.5 million people.

A week ago, Bahrain said it had become the second nation in the world to grant emergency-use authorisation to the Pfizer vaccine after the United Kingdom.

The Pfizer shots, a so-called “mRNA vaccine,” contain a piece of genetic code that trains the immune system to recognise the spiked protein on the surface of the virus. To be vaccinated, a person receives two shots over 21 days.

In the time since, Bahrain has not responded to media questions, including on Friday. Pfizer said that the details of its sales agreement with Bahrain, including the “timing of delivery and the volume of doses,” were confidential and declined to comment.

Bahrain had already granted emergency-use authorisation for a Chinese vaccine made by Sinopharm and has inoculated some 6,000 people with it.

That vaccine is an “inactivated” shot made by growing the whole virus in a lab and then killing it.

The United Arab Emirates on Wednesday described the Sinopharm vaccine as 86% effective, but provided few details and answered no questions. It marked the first public release of information on the efficacy of that shot.

Race against time

Earlier Thursday, Saudi Arabia’s Food and Drug Authority said it had registered the Pfizer vaccine “so that health authorities in the kingdom can then import and use the vaccine.”

The kingdom said it based its decision on information given by Pfizer and German partner BioNTech on November 24, without elaborating. Pfizer on November 18 said its vaccine is 95% effective.

A major challenge for the Pfizer shot in the Mideast remains the weather, however.

The vaccines must be stored and shipped at ultra-cold temperatures of around minus 70 degrees Celsius (minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit).

A nurse shows a COVID-19 vaccine produced by Chinese company Sinovac Biotech at the Sao Lucas Hospital, in Porto Alegre, southern Brazil. (AFP)
A nurse shows a COVID-19 vaccine produced by Chinese company Sinovac Biotech at the Sao Lucas Hospital, in Porto Alegre, southern Brazil. (AFP)

Saudi Arabia said its health ministry would later announce plans on how it would distribute the vaccine in the kingdom, the biggest Gulf Arab state, with a population of 34 million people.

Commenting on the Saudi government’s approval, BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin said that registration for local use shows that the region is taking a proactive stance in bringing an end to the pandemic.

“From the beginning, our goal has been to develop a vaccine that would generate rapid and potent protection against COVID-19 with a benign tolerability profile across all ages,” Sahin said.

“Based on the data seen so far, we believe we have successfully accomplished this. The virus has no borders, so we are working to bring the vaccine to as many people globally as possible, as quickly as possible.”

Prioritising medical staff

The first shipment of vaccines developed by China National Pharmaceutical Group (Sinopharm) arrived at Cairo airport from the UAE.

The vaccine has already been used on about 1 million people in China in an emergency programme.

In Egypt, the vaccine, taken in two doses 21 days apart, will be free of charge and the government will prioritise vaccinating medical staff and people with chronic diseases, health officials said.

It was unclear how many doses of the vaccine Egypt had ordered, but the health minister said there would be more shipments in the days to come.

Egypt, with a population of more than 100 million, is a large market for vaccines. In September, Russia announced a deal to supply Egypt with 25 million doses of the Sputnik V vaccine.

Egypt’s government has confirmed relatively low numbers of coronavirus infections, partly due to limited public testing, but has been warning of a second wave of the pandemic as daily infections have risen in recent weeks.