Doctors and nurses first in line as Morocco's vaccine drive starts

King Mohammed VI received the country’s first injection

epa08973624 A nurse vaccinates a Police officer against the Covid-19 coronavirus in Sale, Morocco, 29 January 2021. On January 28, Morocco began a vaccination campaign against Covid-19, as King Mohammed VI received the first dose after receiving shipments of the AstraZeneca-Oxford and China Sinopharm vaccines. The vaccination campaign in the first phase is expected to target health care workers and elderly people over the age of 75.  EPA/JALAL MORCHIDI
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Scores of Moroccan health workers streamed to a spacious white tent erected outside the Avicenne University Hospital in Rabat to get their first dose of Covid-19 vaccine, as a mass vaccination effort began on Friday in the North African country.

The bustling vaccination centre – one of 600 set up in the capital alone – aims to inject more than 4,000 health professionals with vaccine doses within three weeks.

That's an indication of the ambitious targets set by Morocco, which has one of Africa's most advanced coronavirus vaccination plans.

While European countries and North America started vaccinating several weeks ago, Africa is only just beginning to receive its first doses, mostly from China and Russia.

King Mohammed VI received the country’s first injection on Thursday, and nationwide vaccinations began on Friday – just as the country confirmed its first case of the virus variant identified in Britain.

In this photo released by the Royal Palace, Morocco's King Mohammed VI, right, receives the COVID-19 vaccine at the Royal Palace in Fes, as he launches his country's coronavirus vaccination campaign, Thursday Jan. 28, 2021. The North African kingdom received its first shipments of vaccine doses in recent days from China's Sinopharm and Anglo-Swedish drug maker AstraZeneca. (Moroccan Royal Palace via AP)

Among the first patients to walk into the university hospital tent was Abdelatif Asmamaa, a 58-year-old nurse who has been working on the front lines of the pandemic since March.

Before the first of his two doses was administered, Mr Asmamaa, who suffers from high blood pressure, was greeted by medical staff who inquired about his health then injected him with the Covishield vaccine, developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca.

'It's an exciting atmosphere," he said, checking a document indicating when he will receive his second dose. "I feel nothing, it's like the seasonal flu shot."

In cubicles scattered across the tent, other nurses, doctors and Health Ministry personnel were getting the drug.

Similar scenes unfolded at vaccination locations across the kingdom. A government vaccine deployment plan said around 3,000 sites would be set up in total, including mobile units that will deliver vaccines in remote and rural areas.

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The country's vaccine programme initially targets those most vulnerable to the virus, including healthcare workers, members of the security forces and of other public authorities, and people over the age of 75.

The AstraZeneca vaccine, produced by the Serum Institute of India, is one of two vaccines used by Morocco in its free immunisation drive. The other is developed by China’s Sinopharm. Both vaccines require two doses and do not need ultra-cold storage.

Morocco aims to get 66 million doses of the two vaccines, covering about 80 per cent of its 35 million population.

Asked what criteria determine the vaccine to use, Dr Mina Ait El Qadi, the hospital's pharmacy director, said that it was a decision made by the government's scientific committee.

"We don't really have a say in choosing which vaccine to administer. We work with what they give us."

Morocco has seen a recent drop in confirmed virus cases, which has been attributed to a dip in testing.

Overall, the country has reported more than 469,990 confirmed cases, including 8,246 deaths, according to government data. That is among the highest confirmed tolls in Africa.