‘Our only ray of hope’: Lebanon to begin vaccinations amid steep virus outbreak

First batch of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines will arrive on Sunday

©2021 Tom Nicholson. 12/01/2021. Beirut, Lebanon. Nurse Abdullah Khattabi poses for a portrait in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at the Rafic Hariri University Hospital in southern Beirut, Lebanon. The country will go into a more severe lockdown on Thursday to curb a widespread increase in cases of COVID-19 Coronavirus. Photo credit : Tom Nicholson / The National
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After an agonising year fighting Covid-19, Lebanon’s healthcare system can at last see light at the end of the tunnel.

Healthcare workers are days away from being vaccinated against "one of the cruellest diseases they've ever treated", said Eveline Hitti, chairwoman of the department of emergency medicine at the American University of Beirut Medical Centre.

More than 28,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine arrived on Saturday. More batches will follow this month and later in the year. In all, 2.1 million doses are expected.

“First doses will start on Sunday in limited numbers and will expand on Monday to several centres all over Lebanon,” said Abdul Rahman Bizri, head of Lebanon’s national coronavirus committee. They will be administered with priority given to health workers and high-risk groups as a start, he said.

The initial vaccination drive will include 20 centres at private and public hospitals in areas including Beirut, Byblos, Zahle, Saida, Nabatieh and Tripoli.

To preserve the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, at minus 70°C, 13 ultra-low thermal freezers and 12 compatible vehicles were secured in hospitals for safe storage and transportation.

The process at each centre is divided into three phases: registration, vaccination and observation, which should take about 35 minutes, according to the state’s strategy.

Initially, the goal is to vaccinate 500 people a day, said Firas Abiad, manager of Beirut’s public Rafik Hariri University Hospital. The hospital received the very first reported Covid-19 patient in Lebanon in February 2020 and will be the first to begin vaccinating its frontline staff after a vicious battle with the disease.

“We have a virus to defeat,” said Dr Abiad, emphasising the importance of the vaccine and its efficacy in preventing severe illness.

"This means fewer admissions to ICU, and fewer deaths. This also means no waiting in emergency rooms, oxygen at home, and exhausted healthcare workforce."

Lebanon suffered a blow to its healthcare sector after Christmas and New Year, during which the caretaker government eased lockdown measures. The country recorded more deaths in January 2021 alone than it did during the whole of 2020 as a result of a surge in cases and limited hospital capacity.

Dr Bizri said more centres will be established across Lebanon as more vaccines arrived.

“We want to vaccinate as many people as we can but we’re limited to the number of vaccines arriving in the first batch,” he said.

But reinforcements are on the way. An additional 4.23 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine are expected to arrive in coming months. One and a half million were secured directly from the company and 2.73 million through the UN’s Covax network to cover 20 per cent of the population. This leaves Lebanon with 6.33 million vaccine doses.

To fulfil the aim of vaccinating 80 per cent of the population by year end, the Lebanese government still needs to secure 3.17 million more vaccines. The government said it was in talks with the makers of the Sputnik, Sinopharm, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines to secure the final number.

The success of Lebanon's vaccination drive relies on people's responsiveness, Dr Bizri said. The government hopes to inoculate the majority of the population as soon as possible, but this will not happen if people are not willing to be vaccinated.

A small-scale study conducted by Information International, a Beirut-based research consultancy, shows that only 33 per cent of respondents above 65 years old expressed a willingness to receive the vaccine.

"The numbers are worrying," Dr Abiad said. "It is clear we need to do more to spread awareness and respond to people's fears."

Expressing faith in the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, Dr Bizri said the public have no reason to worry. “We made sure we have the best vaccines for our people,” he tweeted, calling on people to register for the vaccine and help to conquer Covid-19.

Some still harbour concerns.

Despite being excited about receiving the vaccine and hopefully putting an end to the constant risk and anxiety in his everyday life, Hussein Khachfe, a fourth-year medical student in Beirut, has no faith in the state.

“To be very honest, the government hasn’t given me any reason to trust them in storing or administering the vaccine.”

Although he believes that the vaccination strategy is tremendous on paper, he fears unjust distribution or improper storage of the vaccine in smaller, more remote centres.

“My biggest concern is nepotism,” said Mr Khachfe, adding he was worried that Lebanon’s most influential will interfere with vaccine distribution to ensure their “own people” get it first.

The World Bank signed an agreement on Friday with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) to have them oversee the roll-out of the vaccine.

This comes after local media reported that Lebanese politicians had tried to pressure the World Bank into allocating some of the vaccines to them regardless of age and vulnerability to the disease.

"The World Bank’s partnership with IFRC aims to ensure fair, broad, and fast access to Covid-19 vaccines to help save lives and support economic recovery while ensuring strict compliance with the safeguards in place,” Saroj Kumar Jha, World Bank Levant Regional Director said.

Lebanon’s decade-old electricity crisis has yet to be resolved with a minimum of three-hour power cuts daily. Given the need for proper storage conditions for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, many fear power failures will destroy the vaccines.

Another aspect that has caused people to hold back on registering for the vaccine is widespread misinformation.

"Fighting the infodemic is just as important as fighting the pandemic," Dr Hitti said. An infodemic is an overabundance of information that includes deliberate attempts to disseminate wrong information.

Prior to the vaccination drive, Lebanese media had given a platform to non-credible sources who spread false information and disseminated fear.

“That is changing now,” said Dr Hitti, praising new campaigns that are raising awareness based on accurate information.

"We all have a personal responsibility to ensure the success of the vaccine roll-out," Dr Hitti told The National. "The alternative is the devastation we're experiencing in all sectors."

As of Thursday night, 373,595 people had registered for the vaccine on the government platform.