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‘Relief’ as first COVID-19 vaccinations arrive in Lebanon

Under country’s inoculation plan, medical staff and those over 75 are to receive shots first; funded by World Bank, plan aims to immunize two million, a third of the population

Members of Lebanese security forces and staff look on during the unloading of boxes of the first shipment of the COVID-19 Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, upon arrival to Rafic Hariri University Hospital in the capital Beirut, on February 13, 2021. (ANWAR AMRO / AFP)
Members of Lebanese security forces and staff look on during the unloading of boxes of the first shipment of the COVID-19 Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, upon arrival to Rafic Hariri University Hospital in the capital Beirut, on February 13, 2021. (ANWAR AMRO / AFP)

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Lebanon on Saturday received its first vaccines against the coronavirus, a day before an inoculation drive kicks off in the crisis-hit Mediterranean country.

A plane landed at the Beirut airport, an AFP correspondent reported, with authorities saying it was carrying 28,500 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine flown in from Belgium.

The shipment was the first after the World Bank allocated $34 million to inoculate two million of Lebanon’s six million inhabitants.

Caretaker health minister Hamad Hassan was on the tarmac to welcome the plane and expressed great “relief.”

“The vaccine will reach all Lebanese citizens across the country,” as well as Syrian and Palestinian refugees and other residents, he promised.

Lebanon has been under strict lockdown since mid-January, after an unprecedented spike in cases blamed on holiday gatherings that forced overwhelmed hospitals to turn away patients.

The vaccination rollout is set to start on Sunday.

File: Lebanese Minister of Health Hamad Hassan gives an interview to The Associated Press in Beirut, Lebanon, July 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)

Health workers will receive their first doses at the Rafik Hariri Hospital — the country’s main public hospital tackling the COVID-19 outbreak — as well as at the American University of Beirut Medical Centre and Saint George Orthodox Hospital.

“The best gift one can ask for on Valentine’s Day,” wrote the director of the Rafik Hariri Hospital, Firas Abiad, on Twitter.

Prime minister Hassan Diab, 61, is also to be vaccinated, his office said.

Under Lebanon’s vaccination plan, medical staff and those over the age of 75 are to receive the shot first.

In total, Lebanon hopes to receive around six million vaccine doses, including two million from Pfizer/BioNTech and another 2.7 million via the international Covax distribution program.

Half a million people in Lebanon have signed up to receive a vaccine, a health ministry official said, although many others are hesitant to get the shot.

Of 500 people surveyed by private think-tank Information International, 31 percent said they would get vaccinated, 38% said they would rather not, and another 31% were undecided.

Lebanon was already in the throes of its worst economic crisis in decades when COVID-19 hit, and the situation has been exacerbated after a massive blast at Beirut’s port in August killed more than 200 people and destroyed large parts of the capital.

The World Bank and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) are to monitor the vaccine rollout, they said in a statement on Friday.

They aim to “ensure fair, broad and fast access to COVID-19 vaccines to help save lives and support economic recovery,” World Bank regional director Saroj Kumar Jha said.

Lebanon says 336,992 people have caught the coronavirus since February 2020 in the country, of whom 3,961 have died.

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