Around 500,000 coronavirus vaccines reached Ramallah on Tuesday, as part of an American-backed effort to provide doses to the Palestinians through the COVAX international vaccine initiative.
“We were pleased to provide 500,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine to help save Palestinian lives,” tweeted United States Secretary of State Anthony Blinken on Tuesday afternoon.
Around 300,000 of the doses are to remain in the West Bank, while 200,000 will be sent to the Gaza Strip, Palestinian Authority Health Ministry Mai al-Kaila said at a press conference in Ramallah.
The vaccines were sent to the Palestinians through the COVAX mechanism, a World Health Organization program that seeks to provide coronavirus doses for poor and middle-income countries.
The Palestinians have struggled to obtain enough vaccines to immunize their population and prevent the collapse of their health care system. Around 729,000 Palestinians have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, and 442,000 have received two doses, al-Kaila said on Tuesday.
“We’re sharing these vaccines to save lives and bring an end to the pandemic. So we’re allocating 80 million doses of the United States’ domestic vaccine supply to the world,” said Stacy Barrios, who currently serves as Acting Palestinian Affairs head at the US Embassy in Jerusalem.
The shots arrive in the West Bank and Gaza as Palestinians see a steep rise in infections among their mostly unvaccinated public. There are currently 10,591 active cases in Palestinian areas: 6,190 in the Gaza Strip and 4,401 in the West Bank.
Moreover, little testing is being done in both Palestinian regions. In the Gaza Strip, around 27 percent of coronavirus tests came back positive, indicating that the virus was likely spreading widely undetected.
Just two weeks ago, there were only 2,280 active cases among Palestinians. For months, their communities saw a relative lull in coronavirus cases, even as the infection spiraled out of control in Israeli cities.
But health officials warned that a fourth wave of infection was likely, especially after Palestinian schools re-opened last week. And since mid-August, the virus has returned with a vengeance.
Palestinians have cobbled together their coronavirus doses in piecemeal shipments from an eclectic array of sources. Aside from COVAX, the PA, which has limited self-rule in parts of the West Bank, has a contract with Pfizer to import some 4 million doses. Around 1 million have arrived so far, the PA Health Ministry said in early August.
Another 105,000 Palestinians who work in Israel were vaccinated by the Israeli government at checkpoints across the West Bank. Several other countries — China, Russia, and India — also sent token amounts of their national coronavirus vaccines as a goodwill gesture.
In June, the PA called off a deal to receive 1 million Pfizer vaccines from Israel in exchange for later doses, after the Palestinians said that the shots were expiring too soon.
In Gaza, Palestinians have received some vaccines from COVAX. They have also received shipments of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine from the United Arab Emirates. The doses were coordinated by Mohammad Dahlan, an exiled Palestinian politician considered a close associate of Abu Dhabi’s rulers.
But Palestinian health officials said that they have also encountered vaccine hesitancy among wide segments of the population, in both the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip.
“As of right now, we have doses available. Anyone over 18 who wants to be vaccinated can be vaccinated, with Pfizer and AstraZeneca and Sputnik. But we don’t see enough people coming to be vaccinated,” Bethlehem health directorate chief Shadi al-Laham told The Times of Israel last week.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, 329,204 Palestinians have fallen ill from the coronavirus, and another 3,914 have died, according to official PA statistics.