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Deputy health minister says Israel may offer surplus vaccines to Palestinians

Move could save Palestinian Authority from relying on World Health Organization handout program that is struggling to get underway and could take months to deliver

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein attend the arrival of the DHL freight plane transporting the first batch of Pfizer vaccines landing at Ben Gurion Airport on December 9 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein attend the arrival of the DHL freight plane transporting the first batch of Pfizer vaccines landing at Ben Gurion Airport on December 9 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch said Thursday that because Israel plans to obtain more than enough coronavirus vaccines for its citizens, it may offer any excess to the Palestinian Authority, which is currently relying on a World Health Organization handout of vaccines that may take months to arrive.

Kisch told Kan Bet Radio that Israel was working to acquire a surplus of vaccines for Israelis and that “should we see that Israel’s demands have been met and we have additional capability, we will certainly consider helping the Palestinian Authority.” He said doing so would also help prevent a resurgence of outbreaks in Israel proper.

Asher Shalmon, a Health Ministry official, said its approach was in line with past agreements. The Oslo accords require the PA to maintain international vaccination standards and say the sides must exchange information and cooperate in combating epidemics.

While Israel will begin rolling out a major coronavirus vaccination campaign next week, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reached out personally to the head of Pfizer, millions of Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip will have to wait much longer.

Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch in a Knesset committee meeting, January 17, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Worldwide, rich nations are snatching up scarce supplies of new vaccines as poor countries largely rely on a WHO program that has yet to get off the ground.

The PA hopes to get vaccines through the WHO-led partnership with humanitarian organizations known as COVAX, which aims to provide free vaccines for up to 20 percent of the population of poor countries, many of which have been hit especially hard by the pandemic.

But the program has secured only a fraction of the 2 billion doses it hopes to buy over the next year, has yet to confirm any actual deals, and is short on cash. Rich countries have already reserved about 9 billion of the estimated 12 billion doses the pharmaceutical industry is expected to produce next year.

Complicating matters is the fact that the Palestinians have only one refrigeration unit, in the city of Jericho, capable of storing the Pfizer vaccine. They are among nearly 3 billion people worldwide for whom lack of adequate refrigeration capacity could pose a major obstacle.

Dr. Ali Abed Rabbo, a senior Palestinian health official, said the PA is in talks with Pfizer and Moderna, whose vaccines require extra-cold storage, as well as AstraZeneca and the makers of a largely untested Russian vaccine, but has yet to sign any agreements beyond COVAX.

The PA hopes to vaccinate 20% of the population through COVAX, beginning with health workers, he said. “The remainder will depend on Palestine purchasing from the global supply, and we are working with several companies,” he said.

The West Bank city of Ramallah on November 27, 2020, during a lockdown following the spread of COVID-19.

Israel reached an agreement with the Pfizer pharmaceutical company to supply 8 million doses of its newly approved vaccine — enough to cover nearly half of its population of 9 million, since each person requires two doses. That came after Netanyahu spoke multiple times with Pfizer chief executive Albert Bourla, boasting that at one point he was able to reach the CEO at 2 a.m.

Israel has mobile vaccination units with refrigerators that can keep the Pfizer shots at the required minus 70 degrees Celsius (minus 94 Fahrenheit). It plans to begin vaccinations as soon as next week, with a capacity for more than 60,000 shots a day. Israel reached a separate agreement with Moderna earlier this month to purchase 6 million doses of its vaccine — enough for another 3 million Israelis.

Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority have struggled to contain their outbreaks, which have fed off one another as people travel back and forth — mainly tens of thousands of Palestinian laborers employed in Israel.

Israel has reported more than 350,000 cases, including more than 3,000 deaths.

The Palestinian Authority has reported more than 85,000 cases in the West Bank, including more than 800 deaths, and the outbreak has intensified in recent weeks. The situation is even more dire in Gaza, home to 2 million Palestinians, which has been under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade aimed at blocking the import of weapons since the Hamas terrorist group seized power in 2007. Authorities there have reported over 30,000 cases, including 220 deaths.

With Gaza’s Hamas rulers shunned by the international community, the territory will also rely on the Palestinian Authority. That means it could be several months before any large-scale vaccination project is carried out in the impoverished coastal strip.

Gerald Rockenschaub, the head of the WHO office for the West Bank and Gaza, said the PA will provide vaccines to Gaza, but they will arrive in batches and it will take time to reach the first 20%. “We hope that sometime during the first quarter of the next year that the first vaccines will start arriving,” he said.

The Rapid Response Team of the Preventive Medicine Department of the Palestinian Ministry of Health takes examination samples for Coronavirus at a health center in Rafah, a town in the southern Gaza Strip, on November 25, 2020. (Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Israel, which intends to start by inoculating health workers and nursing home residents, plans to issue special “passports” to those who have been vaccinated, exempting them from restrictions and paving the way for the revival of travel and commerce.

But the pandemic could continue to rage in Palestinian cities like Bethlehem — where hotels and shops have been empty for months and Christmas celebrations were mostly called off — even as a sense of normalcy is restored in Israel proper and in West Bank settlements.

Still, tens of thousands of Palestinians work in Israel and the settlements. They could potentially transfer the virus to Israelis who have not been vaccinated, slowing Israel’s path to herd immunity, the point at which the virus can no longer easily spread.

Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, a group that advocates for more equitable health care, says Israel has an obligation under international law to purchase and distribute vaccines to the Palestinians. It says Israel must also ensure that vaccines that don’t meet its own safety guidelines — such as the Russian shot, potentially — are not distributed in areas under its control.

“Israel still maintains control over many aspects of the Palestinians’ lives, whether checkpoints, importing goods and medication, and controlling the movement of people,” said Ghada Majadle, the director of the group’s activities in the Gaza and the West Bank.

“The Palestinian health system, whether in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, is in dire condition, mainly [because of] restrictions imposed by Israel,” he said.

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