Senior PA health official: We’re hesitant about using Russian vaccine

Ramallah also worried by delay in getting doses, with first major AstraZeneca shipment due in March and other suppliers possibly taking months more

The Palestinian Ministry of Health crews conduct random checks through blood in the town of Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on January 14, 2021. For the first time, preventive medicine will contact citizens to complete hundreds of checks during blood sampling, to avoid violating the curfew measures. The blood test helps measure anti-bodies. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
The Palestinian Ministry of Health crews conduct random checks through blood in the town of Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on January 14, 2021. For the first time, preventive medicine will contact citizens to complete hundreds of checks during blood sampling, to avoid violating the curfew measures. The blood test helps measure anti-bodies. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

A senior Palestinian Authority Health Ministry official has expressed concern about the Russian Sputnik vaccine, an essential pillar in Ramallah’s coronavirus immunization plan, and indicated that many doses of coronavirus vaccine might still be months away from reaching the Palestinians.

The Palestinian Authority has announced deals with four companies to provide doses for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza: AstraZeneca, Moderna, the Chinese government-backed Sinopharm, and the Russian-backed Sputnik V.

Sputnik V and Sinopharm have both been controversial due to the lack of transparency in their testing processes, with some health experts initially expressing skepticism about their safety and effectiveness. Both vaccines have been approved independently by several other countries for emergency use.

While expressing confidence in the Chinese vaccine, senior PA health official Osama al-Najjar said that he had some reservations about the Russian Sputnik vaccine.

“We’re hesitant about using these vaccines, and there will be special procedures taken. We’re considering starting them on a small group under close observation before widespread use, as they haven’t gotten emergency authorization from the World Health Organization. There’s still cause for apprehension about them,” said al-Najjar, who serves as director-general for supportive medical services in the ministry, as well as leading the national union of Palestinian doctors.

Palestinians sit as PA Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh opens a hospital for COVID-19 in the West Bank city of Nablus, on January 16, 2021. (Nasser Ishtayeh/ Flash90)

An initial shipment of the Sputnik vaccine — enough to vaccinate 50,000 Palestinians — is scheduled to arrive in February, according to statements by Palestinian and Russian officials.

Al-Najjar estimated that the AstraZeneca vaccine would not arrive in Ramallah until mid-March, adding that Ramallah had already paid half of the doses’ cost upfront to the British pharmaceutical company. The rest of the vaccines, he said, might not arrive until the end of 2021.

“We’ve paid our 50% to AstraZeneca. As for the rest, their arrival times are still a ways away… many of the vaccines won’t arrive until the end of the year,” al-Najjar said.

A small, symbolic shipment of the Russian vaccine — about 5,000 doses, a personal donation from Russian President Vladimir Putin — were scheduled to have arrived on Friday with senior PA official Hussein al-Sheikh, although no official announcement indicated that they had arrived. A spokesperson for the Health Ministry could not be reached for comment.

Asked by The Times of Israel whether the Health Ministry was concerned about the widespread use of the Russian vaccine among the general Palestinian population, al-Najjar answered in the affirmative.

Palestinian Authority Health Ministry official Osama al-Najjar speaks to Palestinian TV in June 2020 (screenshot: Facebook)

Al-Najjar said that while he was confident that “all vaccines” procured by the Palestinian Authority had undergone proper procedures, he acknowledged that the lack of authorization by international bodies sparked concern.

“Certainly. In all honesty, I’m apprehensive about its use,” al-Najjar said, adding: “It’s not easy for us to sign off on this, and it will demand additional supervision and follow-up on our part.”

“It’s a challenge for us to use it in these circumstances, because [Sputnik] has not yet undergone all of those steps. In general, we depend on the medical opinion issued by the World Health Organization regarding vaccines,” al-Najjar said.

Several deadlines provided by Ramallah for the arrival of the vaccine have fallen through. Health ministry officials began predicting the arrival of the Russian vaccine as early as the end of December, but the process has been significantly delayed.

Al-Najjar said that the PA was tightly bound by financial constraints, which greatly limited which vaccines it could access and when.

“All the companies we deal with ask us for 50% upfront, which is sometimes beyond our ability to pay,” al-Najjar said.

Members of the Palestinian security forces enforce a lockdown following the spread the of the Coronavirus , in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on December 18, 2020. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90

While Israel has sprinted ahead in vaccinating its citizens against coronavirus, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have yet to begin a widespread immunization campaign. Israel is reportedly paying around 1 billion NIS ($305 million) to receive the vaccine, far more than the Palestinians have indicated they can afford to pay.

The matter has raised concerns on both sides of the Green Line. Some Israeli health experts have indicated there can be no herd immunity in Israel without Palestinians getting inoculated against the virus as well.

“The message is very simple: We are one epidemiological unit. As much as we can, we have to help them address this matter,” recently departed Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov told The Times of Israel last week.

Human rights groups have called for Israel to provide vaccines to the Palestinians, who live under Israeli military rule.

“Nothing can justify today’s reality in parts of the West Bank, where people on one side of the street are receiving vaccines, while those on the other do not, based on whether they’re Jewish or Palestinian,” said Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch.

Israeli officials have responded that the Palestinians are responsible for vaccinating their own people according to bilateral agreements between the two sides, although some have said that Israel will consider providing immunizations once all Israelis are vaccinated.

Ramallah has also said that it will receive 20% of its vaccines for free from Covax, an international vaccine-sharing system backed by the World Health Organization which aims to ensure equitable distribution of coronavirus inoculations to poor and middle-income countries.

Reached for comment, a spokesperson for the WHO’s envoy to the Palestinians said that its projected rollout placed vaccine delivery between the first quarter of 2021 and mid-year. No vaccines have yet been authorized for distribution by the Covax program.

Al-Najjar said that the Health Ministry was prepared to supply the vaccines. The Palestinian Authority had prepared a website and a database to follow-up with residents to ensure that first and second doses were guaranteed.

“We’ve trained special teams in how the vaccination process will be implemented, prepared medical supplies to be used in the operation and decided how to distribute them, and readied mobile refrigerators for transportation and storage,” Al-Najjar said.

“From a logistical perspective, we’re ready for the vaccine as soon as it comes,” he concluded.

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