Tunisia, Lebanon to get Pfizer vaccines despite acute hardships

With wealthy nations reserving more than half of potential doses, there are fears poorer countries will be left behind.
Wednesday 16/12/2020
A doctor prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg, Virginia, December 15. (AP)
A doctor prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg, Virginia, December 15. (AP)

TUNIS/BEIRUT – Lebanon and Tunisia are set to get Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine, as the two Arab countries struggle to contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic that has exacerbated health and financial crises.

Lebanon’s caretaker Health Minister Hamad Hassan said on Monday that his country is expected to sign a deal this week for supplies of Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine and is set to receive the first batch eight weeks after that.

Meanwhile in Tunisia, local media reported that the health ministry had signed an agreement to obtain vaccines at $7 per dose.

A surge in infections is straining Lebanon’s healthcare system, which has been struggling amid a financial crisis and after a huge port explosion on August 4 smashed hospitals in Beirut.

Adding to the pressures, the economic meltdown has prompted many doctors to emigrate and raised concerns that subsidies on medicines will be removed.

Lebanon, with an estimated population of 6 million, has reported 1,210 deaths as a result of coronavirus pandemic.

Despite the nation’s dire shortage of foreign exchange, the government expects to sign the $18 million deal for supplies of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine this week, Hassan said.

Officials previously said Lebanon was in talks to secure 1.5 million shots of the vaccine.

The first payment of $4 million “was secured” in a meeting with the central bank and outgoing prime minister.

“We removed this obstacle,” the minister said, adding that the first batch of vaccines was expected to arrive eight weeks after the signing.

Lebanon has also signed up to join COVAX, a global scheme backed by the World Health Organization to provide vaccines to poorer countries.

Lebanon’s latest two-week lockdown to curb a surge in infections ended this month. The authorities have struggled to enforce coronavirus restrictions in a country where half the nation has slipped into poverty.

As hospitals have filled up, Hassan said Lebanon aimed to add 200 more intensive care unit (ICU) beds in the next two months, raising the total to 700.

He urged UN agencies and non-governmental organisations to help secure more vaccines for Lebanon, where refugees make up at least a quarter of the population.

“Protecting all the communities living in Lebanon … should be part of the same plan,” he said.

The situation is no better in Tunisia, which on Tuesday reported 1,483 new cases, raising its total number of infections to 113,241. The death toll from the virus rose by 41 to 3,956 in the North African country, the health ministry said in a statement.

Tunisia, like Lebanon, is struggling with economic stagnation that has left the public as angry as it was a decade ago.

Over the past ten years, Tunisia’s economy has been crippled by high debt and deteriorating public services, made worse by the pandemic and a year of political turmoil.

Despite the dire situation, the Tunisian health ministry signed an agreement to obtain the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Director General of the Pasteur Institute of Tunis Hechmi Louzir said Tuesday that his country has already reserved 2 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines from the American pharmaceutical company Pfizer.

He added in an interview with the state news agency Tunis Afrique Presse that the COVID-19 vaccines will be free for all Tunisian citizens.

The first doses of the vaccine will be allocated to those suffering from chronic diseases, the elderly and health workers, according to Louzir, who noted that vaccination will not be mandatory.

The vaccine, developed by Pfizer Inc and German partner BioNTech SE, won emergency-use authorisation last week.

Worldwide, more than 73.4 million infections and over 1.6 million deaths have been recorded so far.

But with wealthy nations reserving more than half of next year’s potential doses, there are fears the poorer parts of the world will be left behind.

Even if the drug makers all produce effective, safe vaccines and meet their maximum global manufacturing targets, a study published by researchers from Johns Hopkins University warned that “at least a fifth of the world’s population would not have access” until 2022.

The World Health Organisation has said it is in talks with Pfizer about including its vaccines at affordable prices for poor countries.