Over one million people in Lebanon are expected to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine over the next few months, said Abdul Rahman Bizri, head of the technical expert group in charge of the country's Covid-19 vaccination campaign.
The government has ordered 2.1 million doses of the vaccine which will arrive in batches over the first months of 2021, with a first batch of about 60,000 doses expected in early February. Two doses are needed for each person.
"The initial amount could have been larger the first week, but we said we needed a smaller size to see how our national vaccination centres will handle them," said Mr Bizri told The National. Directors are being appointed for the 12 vaccination centres nationwide.
Vaccination will be free for residents of all nationalities, with priority given to healthcare workers, the elderly with chronic conditions and essential workers such as employees at electricity maintenance networks, bakeries and supermarkets.
At a later, still undetermined stage in 2021, the government will allow the private sector to offer vaccines those willing to pay for it, under the supervision of Mr Bizri’s committee.
The committee is also considering ordering the Oxford-AstraZeneca and the China-developed vaccines Sinovac and Sinopharm.
“Maybe some people won’t want to wait and want to get the vaccination on their own,” said Mr Bizri.
It remains unclear how much the Lebanese government is paying for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. In an email to The National, Pfizer said that "discussions with the [Lebanese] government are ongoing and details of our negotiations are confidential".
Lebanon is wracked by its worst-ever economic crisis that started months before it was hit by the pandemic in February 2020, with the IMF expecting the economy to contract by 25 per cent this year and more than half of Lebanese living in poverty. The government defaulted on its debt for the first time last March.
Hospitals, which already had to limit their medical imports, are under severe financial strain though the situation is still under control in Covid-19 wards, according to public hospital employees in the city of Saida in the south and Halba in the north.
This week, the small Mediterranean country witnessed a worrying surge in the spread of the virus, with more than new 4,700 cases and 16 deaths on Thursday. In total, 204,699 people have been infected.
The sudden increase in cases comes after end of year celebrations during which the government lifted most restrictions, allowing restaurants and bars to operate at 50 per cent capacity and shortening the night curfew to only two hours, from 3am to 5am.
The government has responded with a three-week partial lockdown that began on January 7, one day after Armenian Christmas celebrations, with similar restrictions that were enforced with little success over the past year. These include a curfew from 6pm to 5am and a ban on driving on Sundays.
From Monday, airport traffic will be reduced to 20 per cent of what it was in January 2020.
More than 14 per cent of PCR tests conducted in Lebanon are positive. Mr Bizri blamed this comparatively high rate on the government for not doing enough to curb the spread of the virus. “We don’t have good control of people’s behaviour in the country,” he said.
But the death rate remains low, which Mr Bizri attributed to Lebanon being a demographically young country.
Mr Bizri compared the Lebanese government’s containment strategy to a “losing game”.
“If you are losing a game, the coach will call for time-out. If he’s good, he’ll use that time to replan a strategy. If he’s lousy, he’ll allow players to relax, and they will play again with the same old tactics. They’ll probably not do well,” he said.