BEIRUT: Lebanon received its first ever shipment of the coronavirus vaccine Saturday, as it gears up to launch the much-awaited inoculation campaign.
The shipment from Brussels contained around 28,500 jabs of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Caretaker Health Minister Hamad Hasan, along with other officials was at the Beirut airport to receive the much-awaited shipment.
"The virus entered Lebanon a year ago and today the promised vaccine [is here] despite all the challenges. The government has managed to achieve the dream," Hasan said in a speech from the airport.
He also addressed any concerns by citizens that the vaccines would end up in the wrong hands.
"To everyone who has doubts ... I say, there will be no smuggling, or political and sectarian considerations. The vaccine will reach every wounded citizen," he said.
The vaccines were transported to the Health Ministry's warehouse and stored in special fridges, according to local media. The Pfizer-BioNTech jabs need to be stored at a temperature of negative 70 Celsius degrees.
Rafik Hariri University Hospital (RHUH), The American University of Beirut Medical Center, Saint George Hospital and Hôtel-Dieu de France will also be one of the first hospitals to receive the vaccine and will start administering it to its staff Sunday, the official day of the launch of the national vaccination drive which will be launched at the Grand Serail. Around 50 to 100 people of the medical staff at RHUH will be receiving the vaccine Sunday morning as the drive kicks off.
“Almost one year after RHUH received the first #Covid19 patient in Lebanon, and then hundreds more, our staff, deservedly, will be amongst the first healthcare workers to receive the vaccine,” head of RHUH Dr. Firass Abiad said in a tweet.
Another 17 hospitals will start receiving the vaccine in the upcoming week.
Lebanon has so far reserved around 6.3 million coronavirus vaccine doses, which are enough to inoculate around half the population as each person needs two doses for full effect.
The government has secured 2.1 million jabs of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, 2.7 million doses through the COVAX platform which includes jabs of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, in addition to Novavax and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines. Another 1.5 million doses have also been reserved from Oxford-AstraZeneca through a separate agreement with the company.
The World Bank is financing the vaccine rollout and has allocated 34 million US dollars for the procurement of the Pfizer vaccines. The bank, along with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies will be monitoring the vaccine rollout in the country to its ensure fair and equitable access.
"We will monitor fair and transparent distribution to priority groups,” Ferid Belhaj, the World Bank MENA vice president said in a tweet Friday night.
Front line health workers and those over the age of 75 will be the first to receive the vaccine.
Next in line are all those between the ages of 65 and 74 and people between the ages of 55 and 64 with pre-existing health conditions.
The government aims to achieve herd immunity by year end or by the beginning of 2020 by vaccinating between 70 to 80 percent of the population.
Lebanon registered its first coronavirus case almost a year ago. More than 300,000 cases have been recorded since, along with nearly 4,000 deaths. The country witnessed its most dangerous surge last month, registering more than 6,000 daily cases at one point and recording more than 1,000 deaths in January alone.
The vaccine is the only hope for the country's overwhelmed health care sector as hospitals exceeded their patient intake capacities and their ICUs were full.
Taking the vaccine isn’t obligatory. Around 400,000 people of a nearly 6 million population have so far signed up to get it.
Registration is through the Impact platform http://covax.moph.gov.lb/ or by calling the Health Ministry hotline 1214.