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Survey finds 40% of Palestinians have coronavirus antibodies

Large study based on 6,000 blood samples; findings consistent across West Bank and Gaza Strip, although death rates remain remarkably low

Palestinian health workers at a hospital in the West Bank town of Nablus, where health workers were vaccinated against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19)  earlier today, after the delivery of vaccine doses from Israel. February 3, 2021. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)
Palestinian health workers at a hospital in the West Bank town of Nablus, where health workers were vaccinated against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) earlier today, after the delivery of vaccine doses from Israel. February 3, 2021. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

Around 40 percent of Palestinians tested for coronavirus antibodies came back positive, according to the preliminary findings of a large-scale report by the Palestinian Authority.

Researchers took 6,000 blood samples from Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. According to the World Health Organization, the preliminary findings suggest that an estimated 40% of the Palestinian population has coronavirus-related antibodies.

The PA Health Ministry, the Palestinian National Institute of Public Health (PNIPH), and the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics conducted the survey with support from the WHO, which provided antibody testing kits.

“We randomized the households and then randomized within the households to get a good cross-section of the whole population,” outgoing WHO envoy to the Palestinians Gerald Rockenschaub said in a phone call.

Dr. Rand Salman, who directs the Palestinian National Institute of Public Health, told The Times of Israel that the study found little difference between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in terms of “acquired immunity.”

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

Coronavirus antibodies turned up in 39% of samples from the West Bank and 41% of those from Gaza, Salman said.

Around 168,444 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have tested positive for coronavirus since the beginning of the pandemic last March, and 1,936 have died, according to the Palestinian Authority Health Ministry.

Salman said that given the new numbers, the fatality rate appeared to be remarkably low among Palestinians. She added that her institute was currently attempting to estimate how many deaths from COVID-19 had gone unreported.

“Even so, the numbers we see are not so shocking…When we take the number of deaths and take into account the level of community infection, the infection fatality rate is very low in Palestine,” Salman said.

The West Bank has seen several waves of coronavirus, with the last spike in infections peaking in December. At the time, Palestinians were seeing nearly 2,000 new cases today. Sky-high positivity rates among coronavirus tests — occasionally as high as 30% in the West Bank — indicated that the virus was spreading widely undetected.

In statements to Palestinian media last week, Deputy Health Minister Yusuf Abu Rish also estimated that 40% of Gazans had been infected with the novel coronavirus.

“The Health Ministry in Gaza had done their own study, using rapid tests, and they came to a similar conclusion of roughly 40%. Our findings mostly confirmed their findings,” Rockenschaub explained.

Gaza residents live in some of the world’s densest conditions. Nearly 2 million Palestinians live in crowded refugee camps in the 140-square-mile large coastal enclave.

Since the beginning of the pandemic last March, 53,514 Gazans have tested positive for the coronavirus and 537 have died. At the peak of the virus’s spread in late December, 45% of coronavirus tests came back positive in the Gaza Strip.

While Israel has surged ahead in vaccinating its public — as of Monday, around 43% of Israelis had received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine — the Palestinians have yet to begin their own vaccination effort.

On Monday, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said that the rollout would be later than expected, without explaining the reason for the delay.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh addresses PA cabinet ministers on January 25, 2021 (WAFA)

PA officials had previously said they anticipated a vaccine shipment by mid-February, enabling it to start immunizing the general public in the West Bank and Gaza.

“There has been a delay in the arrival of the vaccine,” Shtayyeh told the PA cabinet, without elaborating.

Ramallah has contracted with several parties to provide vaccinations, including Russia, China, and the AstraZeneca pharmaceutical company. The majority of the vaccines expected to arrive in February, however, are from the UN-backed COVAX mechanism for poor and middle-income countries.

Around 37,000 Pfizer vaccines have been allocated for use by COVAX for the Palestinians; the first doses are intended to go to frontline healthcare workers.

“There are still some bureaucratic formalities that need to be resolved… We were told that the Pfizer allocation should be available as of mid-February, so we expect that to arrive in one to two weeks,” Rockenschaub said.

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