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Palestinian Authority receives 61,440 vaccine doses through WHO program

Allocated through UN-backed COVAX initiative for poor countries, the vaccines arrive in Ramallah via Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport

Palestinian health workers at a hospital in the West Bank town of Nablus, where health workers were vaccinated against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19)  earlier today, after the delivery of vaccine doses from Israel, February 3, 2021. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)
Palestinian health workers at a hospital in the West Bank town of Nablus, where health workers were vaccinated against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) earlier today, after the delivery of vaccine doses from Israel, February 3, 2021. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

Around 61,440 doses of coronavirus vaccine earmarked for the Palestinian Authority reached Ramallah on Wednesday after arriving in Ben Gurion airport earlier the same day.

“The delivery of the vaccines is now making its way to the Beitunia Crossing, facilitated by the Unit for Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), and will be handed over to representatives of the PA,” an Israeli Defense Ministry official said.

An AFP journalist confirmed the doses’ subsequent arrival in Ramallah.

Ramallah is receiving the doses through COVAX, a global vaccine program for poor and middle-income countries backed by the World Health Organization. The program aims to provide enough free doses to immunize up to 20 percent of a participating country’s population; around 90 countries have signed up for the program.

The Palestinian Authority said that vaccination would begin on Sunday, primarily for those aged over 75, cancer patients and medical personnel.

Around 37,440 of the vaccines that arrived on Wednesday were Pfizer vaccines, while the remaining 24,000 were AstraZeneca vaccines, said a spokesperson for the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). The UN agency plays a key role in vaccinating Palestinians, especially in the Gaza Strip.

Some 20,000 doses from the shipment was to be sent to Gaza later in the day, the Israeli Defense Ministry official said.

COVAX intends to eventually provide about 400,000 AstraZeneca shots to the Palestinians, according to UNICEF. The vaccine has become controversial in recent days due to suspected side effects; in a few rare cases, some of those vaccinated developed blood clots.

While it is still unclear whether the clots are connected to the vaccine, several European countries have decided to suspend their use of the AstraZeneca shots in their vaccine campaign. Palestinian health officials indicated that they would also follow such a policy.

“We will hold onto the AstraZeneca doses until there is a scientific opinion on the matter by the World Health Organization,” PA Health Minister Mai al-Kaila told Voice of Palestine Radio on Wednesday.

Israel has surged ahead in immunizing its population, but Palestinians have yet to see a public vaccination campaign.

Health officials in Gaza have also received around 60,000 Russian Sputnik V vaccines funded by the United Arab Emirates. They have also received around 2,000 Sputnik doses from the Palestinian Authority.

Israel has also begun vaccinating Palestinians who work in Israel, sending medical teams to operate at checkpoints and industrial zones in the West Bank. According to the Israeli military body that handles Palestinian civil affairs, over 90,000 Palestinian workers have received one dose of a coronavirus vaccine.

Palestinians from the Ministry of Health receive a shipment of the Russian Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine doses sent by the United Arab Emirates, after the Egyptian authorities allowed entry to Gaza through the Rafah crossing in the southern Gaza Strip, on February 21, 2021. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The Palestinian Authority has independently contracted with several providers — including AstraZeneca, Russia and China — to acquire doses, but very few have arrived.

Palestinian Authority officials have repeatedly set public deadlines for the vaccines’ arrival, only to see them fall through. Late January, early February, mid-February, and early March were all named as potential arrival dates for major vaccine shipments, but none came to fruition.

Before Wednesday’s shipment, the PA had only received about 12,000 vaccines: 2,000 Moderna vaccines from Israel and 10,000 doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine. Around 2,000 of those were sent to Gaza, with another 200 sent to Jordan, according to the PA Health Ministry.

The remaining 9,800 vaccines were allocated to the West Bank, the Health Ministry said. But accusations of nepotism and corruption have dogged their distribution, with a substantial number of shots reportedly going to those close to government officials rather than to healthcare workers.

In a statement, Ramallah acknowledged that some doses went to government officials, some young students and the Palestinian national soccer team. But officials maintained that 90 percent of the vaccines were given to front-line healthcare workers.

In Gaza, health authorities have confirmed more than 57,000 infected people, including more than 568 dead, since the start of the pandemic.

In the West Bank, around 156,000 patients have been recorded, including more than 1,745 deaths.

AFP contributed to this report.

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