Lebanon receives first AstraZeneca batch after vaccine controversy

Delivery of the Covid-19 doses had been delayed over safety concerns

Medical personnel prepares AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at the general practice of Doctor Claudia Schramm as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Maintal, Germany, March 24, 2021.  REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Lebanon received 33,600 AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine doses on Wednesday.

Caretaker health minister Hamad Hassan had announced the expected arrival of the vaccines at a meeting to discuss the country's national vaccination strategy.

The first AstraZeneca batch had been due to arrive in mid-March but this was postponed following global controversy over the safety of the vaccine.

After the AstraZeneca vaccine was declared "safe and effective" by international health organisations, Lebanon's Ministry of Health called on citizens to register for inoculation, to speed up the national vaccination programme.

The AstraZeneca doses will be used to inoculate two new groups: the education sector and people aged between 55 and 65, Mr Hassan said.

Lebanon's schools suspended classes for a week on March 8 in protest against a lack of state action in dealing with a number of growing crises.

A main demand was prioritising teachers and other school staff in the vaccination strategy, to ensure a safe return to schools.

But the prospect of receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine has divided opinion.

Dayana Mansour, a 24-year-old teacher at a state school in Beirut's southern suburbs, told The National she was excited that she was going to be vaccinated.

“I will happily take the vaccine. It’s the only way to go back to normal,” she said.

But Nada Dayeh, a 57-year-old supervisor at a Beirut private school, was concerned.

"After hearing speculation that this vaccine might not be safe, it's difficult to regain trust," she said. "I would prefer taking another vaccine if possible."

The Lebanese government was able to secure 2.73 million AstraZeneca doses – enough to provide two vaccines for 20 per cent of the population – through the UN’s Covax initiative, which aims to provide vaccines to poorer countries.

It has also organised 1.5 million doses directly from AstraZeneca.

These will be delivered in shipments over the coming months.

Lebanon is counting on these supplies to boost its vaccination programme, currently progressing at a relatively slow rate.

Out of 981,368 people registered, 103,902 have received one shot of the vaccine and 57,783 have received both shots.

This brings the vaccinated population to about 3 per cent in a country of 6 million people, including refugees.

“Lebanon needs to vaccinate at least 85 per cent of the population to achieve herd immunity,” tweeted Dr Assem Araji, head of the parliamentary health committee.

Curbing the virus's spread is necessary to ease the burden on Lebanon’s overwhelmed health sector and crumbling economy.

In recent days, the country has witnessed the highest number of admissions to intensive care units and highest depreciation of the Lebanese pound.

“Vaccinating a larger number of people is the best way to avoid repeated closures,” said Dr Abdul Rahman Bizri, head of the national vaccination committee.

“Lebanon will soon receive a variety of vaccines with greater amounts from the public and private sector. This is good news amid a very shaky situation,” he tweeted.

Lebanon was also able to secure an additional 750,000 Pfizer-BioNTech doses to speed up the vaccination process, according to Mr Hassan.

To date, 150,000 Pfizer doses have arrived in Lebanon, out of 2.1 million ordered.

Private companies are also working on importing vaccines, in the hope that they can resume business sooner.

Lebanese pharmaceutical company Pharmaline secured 1 million doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine.

The first batch of 50,000 doses is due to arrive in Lebanon in 48 hours, said Mr Hassan.

Another company has also ordered the Sputnik V vaccine, and a shipment will arrive in coming days, he added.

“The ministry wants to vaccinate as many people in as little time as possible,” said Mr Hassan, while announcing a new plan to merge priority groups to speed up the vaccination process.

From Thursday, healthcare workers, people over 75 and people aged between 65 and 75 with more than one disease or health condition comorbidities will be considered one essential group.

“We have nearly 1 million people registered on the vaccination platform, all of whom will be vaccinated by early June,” said Mr Hassan.

The ministry aims to vaccinate 80 per cent of the population by the end of the year.