With Israel expected to begin vaccinating its population by the end of December, Palestinians may not see their first coronavirus vaccinations until March, Palestinian Authority Health Minister Mai al-Kaila said in a press conference in Ramallah on Wednesday.
“We expect that our first vaccination will be around the end of January, early February, by March it will be with us,” al-Kaila told reporters.
The first major shipment of doses of the Pfizer vaccine is poised to arrive in Israel on Thursday to test the logistics of storing and transporting the shots. Inoculations are expected to begin by the end of December.
Al-Kaila explained, however, that health authorities in the West Bank had determined that the Pfizer vaccines’ exacting storage and transportation requirements made it a poor choice for the Palestinians.
Pfizer doses must be stored at -70° C (-94° F) and used within five days of their removal from cold storage. The AstraZeneca vaccine — the preferred candidate of the world’s poorer countries, and one of the vaccines the Palestinians are most likely to get — can be kept at normal fridge temperatures.
“The Pfizer vaccine requires logistical factors, freezing, a freezer which can keep its contents at -75 to -80 degrees [celsius]. We have only one freezer in Palestine for storage. And it won’t hold large quantities. We would also need smaller freezers so as to move the vaccine between different provinces,” al-Kaila said.
“That’s not available for us, so we’ve struck that possibility,” al-Kaila concluded.
To ensure that the Palestinian Authority receives its share of coronavirus vaccines, the PA has filed an application for the Covax initiative, a UN-backed program that hopes to provide up to 20 percent of low-income countries’ coronavirus vaccines for free.
The Covax timeline could be slower than the Israeli rollout, as vaccines will be distributed proportionally to all 92 governments participating in the program as supplies become available. Each country will receive shipments in tranches: An initial 3% of vaccines to inoculate first responders, followed by additional stages as all countries progress together toward the 20% limit.
After one-fifth of the population is inoculated, the free doses run out. Countries will be able to purchase additional subsidized doses through the program, depending on how many doses are available and when.
According to al-Kaila, medical responders will receive priority access to vaccines as they arrive, followed by members of the Palestinian security services and those deemed to be in at-risk groups.
“According to Covax guidelines, the first priority ought to go to medical first responders. We told them that we wanted to also prioritize the security services who work alongside us in the field, the elderly, pregnant women, and the chronically ill,” al-Kaila said on Tuesday.
She suggested that the PA could continue to purchase subsidized vaccines from Covax beyond the free ones they hope to receive, but that it was yet to be finalized with the international body.
She also said that Palestinian officials had met on Wednesday with representatives from AstraZenaca and the Russian ambassador with regard to their vaccines, as well as a Tuesday meeting with representatives from the Moderna pharmaceutical company.
The coronavirus outbreak among Palestinians has reached new heights in recent weeks. The West Bank and Gaza have each seen record daily increases in infections: There are currently 15,003 active infections in the West Bank and 10,206 in the Gaza Strip, according to PA Health Ministry figures.
In the West Bank, around 15% of coronavirus tests came back positive on average — indicating that the virus could be spreading widely undetected. In four PA governorates — Hebron, Tulkarem, Nablus and Bethlehem — more than 30% of those tested were confirmed to carry the coronavirus, al-Kaila said on Wednesday.
Health officials have raised concerns that the medical sector could collapse in both Palestinian areas. There are only 240 ventilators in the West Bank, 80% of which are already in use, PA Health Ministry spokesperson Kamal al-Shakhra said on Wednesday.
A weeklong total lockdown is scheduled to begin in the four “red” provinces beginning on Thursday night, and travel between all governorates has been banned, PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said on Monday.
The decision to return to lockdown has provoked criticism, and hundreds of demonstrators have gathered in the West Bank city of Hebron for the past two nights to protest the measure’s economic impact.
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Hebron Mayor Tayseer Abu Sneineh told the Ma’an News Agency on Tuesday that the lockdown has “enormous and destructive dimensions. It will have social repercussions. It may even open the path to compromising civic peace.”
In response to the criticism, al-Kaila said on Wednesday that the lockdown was intended “to buy time” until Palestinians begin to receive coronavirus vaccines.
In the Gaza Strip, mosques, schools, universities and nurseries have all been closed, and a curfew starting at 6 p.m. has been in effect since last week due to the rise in infections. In the past 24 hours, 37.4% of coronavirus tests came back positive.
Hamas health officials have warned that Gaza’s fragile health system — battered by a 13-year-blockade by Egypt and Israel, as well as three wars between Israel and Hamas — cannot withstand much further strain.
The terror group, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, has ruled the coastal enclave since 2007. Israel says it maintains the blockade on the territory to prevent Hamas from importing arms.