Lebanon has reserved coronavirus vaccines for nearly 1 million people

The doses reserved should cover 1 in 6 Lebanese citizens

epa08904895 People spend a day at the corniche during a sunny day in Beirut Lebanon, 26 December 2020.  EPA/NABIL MOUNZER

Lebanon’s health minister said on Monday the country has reserved nearly two million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine.

Two doses are required for full effectiveness.

Hamad Hassan said in a news conference his government had been negotiating with the company to acquire the vaccines and that they were expected to reach Lebanon by February. The deal was expected to be signed on Monday.

In November, Mr Hassan said a committee had been established to oversee the importing and handling of the vaccine because it must be stored at an extremely low temperature.

He said the government was also in talks with Moderna, noting “its founders are of Lebanese origin”. Noubar Afeyan, the company’s chairman, was born in Beirut.

Lebanon is reeling from a historic economic crisis that has left the highly indebted government short on cash and foreign currency. Donors and supporters in other countries have refrained from bankrolling the government deficit demanding major reforms, which have failed to materialise because of political jockeying among the country’s many power centres and sectarian groups.

Assem Araji, the politician who leads the parliamentary health committee, said the deal being negotiated is for $18 a dose, a price that takes into consideration Lebanon’s economic troubles. The $27 million deal would secure 1.5 million vaccines while the country negotiates to receive closer to two million.

Mr Araji told The Associated Press news agency the government would pay a $4 million deposit at signing, expected to be Monday. It hopes to cover the rest with a World Bank loan that has been diverted to cover expenses related to the pandemic.

Lebanon has also signed up for another 1.5 million vaccines with Covax, the WHO-led partnership with humanitarian organisations that aims to provide vaccines for up to 50 per cent of the population of poor countries hit hard by the pandemic. Lebanon has deposited $4.3 million to secure the Covax vaccines, Mr Araji said.

Both vaccines would be offered free of charge in Lebanon. Commercially, hospitals and pharmacies can provide their own vaccines, Mr Araji said.

Lebanon has a population of almost seven million, World Bank figures show. This includes about one million Syrian refugees.

Mr Araji said UN agencies would cover the refugee population.

The country has reported a surge in coronavirus cases in recent weeks which has driven the number of reported infections above 170,000 and caused more than 1,400 deaths. Lebanon’s health sector is also under strain amid the economic crunch and following the explosion in Beirut on August 4, which temporarily knocked some hospitals out of service.

The government resigned after the blast, and is acting in a caretaker capacity, requiring approval from the president before signing the commercial deal with Pfizer-BioNTech.

Lebanon has 12 refrigerators in which the vaccine can be stored between minus 80°C and minus 60°C, and WHO has promised six more, Mr Araji said.