Palestinian health officials announced over the weekend that they had signed a deal with the AstraZeneca pharmaceutical firm and were anticipating the arrival of its first major vaccine shipment by the end of February.
“We’ve received a formal letter from the AstraZeneca pharmaceutical company that by February 15th, the vaccines will arrive in Palestine…between the middle and the end of the month,” Palestinian Authority Health Ministry spokesperson Kamal al-Shakhra told Voice of Palestine Radio on Saturday.
The Palestinian Authority, which has sought to import vaccines for Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza, has set several deadlines for the immunizations’ arrival, including by the end of last December. So far, every deadline has fallen through.
Ramallah has yet to publicly ask Israel — which has emerged as a world leader in vaccinations — to take responsibility for providing vaccines to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, some officials criticized Israel for not doing so.
Israel has already given first doses to some 1.7 million people out of a population of 9.29 million, by far the highest vaccination rate in the world. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to accelerate the inoculation drive to 170,000 doses a day in an attempt to end the coronavirus pandemic in Israel by the end of March.
On Saturday, the Palestinian Foreign Ministry said Israel was shirking what it claimed was an Israeli obligation to provide immunizations for the Palestinians.
The issue of Israel’s legal responsibility to the Palestinians in a pandemic is highly contentious and hotly debated by international law experts. The 1995 Oslo II Accord delegates responsibility for health care to the Palestinian Authority. But the same treaty also obligates the two sides to cooperate in fighting epidemics.
“The search by the Palestinian leadership to secure the vaccines from various sources does not exempt Israel from its duties towards the Palestinian people in providing the vaccines,” the Foreign Ministry said.
On Sunday, the PA Foreign Ministry backtracked to clarify that Israel’s legal obligations to the welfare of the Palestinians did not constitute “an abdication in any way of the responsibilities of the State of Palestine towards the Palestinian people, including providing healthcare and COVID vaccinations.”
The majority of Israel’s vaccines have come from Pfizer, which the PA has acknowledged it would have trouble storing in the requisite sub-zero conditions.
Palestinian officials also fiercely denied media reports in the Israeli press last week which alleged a secret transfer of several thousand shots for “humanitarian purposes.”
“The Health Ministry did not receive any vaccines from Israel,” senior Palestinian Authority health official Osama al-Najjar told The Times of Israel at the time.
The World Health Organization, however, said that the Israeli Health Ministry had dismissed a request made in “informal discussions” by the international body to allocate vaccines to inoculate Palestinian frontline healthcare workers.
“The Israeli Ministry of Health indicated they would explore this option, but were currently not in a position to supply vaccines because of a shortage of vaccines in Israel,” said WHO official Gerald Rockenschaub, who serves as the international body’s envoy to the Palestinians.
In recent days, Palestinian health officials have also offered conflicting accounts on when, exactly, the AstraZeneca vaccines will arrive. On Sunday, Palestinian health official Yaser Bouzyeh told Reuters that he anticipated that the vaccines would arrive in March.
In a clarification issued to official PA media on Saturday, PA Health Minister Mai al-Kaila threw cold water on Al-Shakhra’s hopeful timing.
“There is not yet a definite deadline for the arrival of the coronavirus vaccine, although it is probable that they will arrive in the first quarter of this year,” al-Kaila asserted.
Al-Kaila added that deals had been signed with three additional companies to provide vaccinations for the Palestinians. The minister said that she believed the doses from the deals would cover 70% of the Palestinian population.
Ramallah is also depending on an internationally-backed mechanism known as COVAX, which aims to provide free coronavirus vaccines for around 90 participating countries who would otherwise be unable to afford the shots. If everything goes according to plan, COVAX will provide enough doses to immunize around 20% of Palestinians.
But the COVAX vaccines are unlikely to reach Ramallah or Gaza City for quite some time. The World Health Organization, a key sponsor of COVAX, has yet to approve any vaccines for use in the program. The roll-out will also be relatively slow. An initial tranche of vaccines — enough to inoculate 3% of the Palestinian population — will be sent to Ramallah for use by priority groups before more doses are gradually sent along.
The free immunizations are scheduled to begin to be allocated in February, while delivery could be as late as mid-year, according to the World Health Organization. The program aims to have vaccinated all 20% of its global target population — spread between all participating countries — by the end of 2021, according to the WHO.