The number of Covid-19 cases in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region crossed 4,522,317 on 11 January 2021, according to Worldometers data collated by MEED.
Countries in the GCC comprise 24.8 per cent (1,123,511) of total infections, while Iran alone makes up 28.4 per cent (1,286,406) of the 4.5 million cases.
The ramping up of vaccine administration is contributing to the resumption of key economic activities in Saudi Arabia.
On 7 January, Health Minister Tawfiq bin Fawzan al-Rabiah and chairman of the Saudi Authority for Data & Artificial Intelligence Abdullah bin Sharaf bin Jamaan al-Ghamdi launched a medical passport service via the Tawakkalna application.
The service aims to confirm that the person has completed all doses of the Covid-19 vaccine and is immune to the virus.
A day later, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud received the first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine.
On the same day, the kingdom’s Ministry of Interior said it would lift the ban on all international flights and open all land, sea and air outlets from 31 March.
Vaccination programmes are also advancing in the UAE, which, as of 11 January, had provided 1,167,251 doses, with 11.8 shots administered per 100 people.
The Ministry of Health & Prevention said vaccines are being provided to frontline workers and are available to both citizens and residents, in particular elderly people and those with chronic diseases.
On 7 January, volunteers in Abu Dhabi were said to have started participating in phase 3 clinical trials of the Russian adenovirus-based Covid-19 vaccine (Sputnik V).
Initially open to 500 volunteers, the trials are being conducted by the Department of Health – Abu Dhabi (DoH), with joint supervision by the UAE health ministry. Volunteers will receive two doses of the vaccine, administered 20 days apart, and will be monitored through regular visits and tele-consultations for 180 days after taking the jab.
In Bahrain, meanwhile, passenger traffic on King Fahad causeway resumed on 3 January. The 25 kilometre-long bridge closed on 7 March as part of measures to fight the spread of Covid-19.
Its reopening, initially expected on 1 January, was delayed after Saudi Arabia decided to impose travel restrictions related to the spread of a new variant of the coronavirus.
Bahrain is reported to have extended measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus for two more months.
The decision includes the continued suspension of the BD7 charge for health services offered to foreigners at the country’s health centres, in order to encourage early diagnosis of virus cases.
Governments in the Mena region are also ramping up vaccine administration capacity.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the government is taking measures to produce a vaccine domestically and to buy “a safe foreign vaccine”.
He added: “Due to the problems caused by the cruel and illegal sanctions, we were busy transferring money for supplying foreign vaccines for one month to 40 days.
“A vaccination document [covering] 60 million people has been prepared in four phases with specific priorities,” he said.
Meanwhile, on 9 January, Jordan said it was preparing to receive the first batches of the Chinese Sinopharm and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines.
Health Minister Nazir Obeidat said the early part of the immunisation programme would focus on the elderly with chronic diseases and frontline health workers.
The minister said the government had also agreed with the Covax initiative to procure vaccines, and that efforts were under way to buy more batches of the Sinopharm vaccine.
Jordan’s government has also reached understandings with AstraZeneca and Johnson&Johnson for supply of coronavirus vaccines as soon as they are produced and granted emergency-use status both globally and locally.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is to be used in several Mena countries, including Lebanon, where caretaker Health Minister Hamad Hassan has confirmed the availability of funding for the jab.
“The Pfizer vaccine will arrive in the first week of February, and the ongoing negotiations with the company will not affect its arrival date,” the minister said.
“The agreement with the World Bank will guarantee a financial coverage to purchase the vaccine, in addition to the Finance Ministry’s approved allocation.”
An app named E-vax will be launched by late January to organise a Covid-19 vaccination campaign in Tunisia, Hechmi Louzir, a member of the Scientific Committee to Combat Coronavirus, said.
He added that the app features a section to monitor the health of vaccinated people and facilitate the reporting of adverse reactions to the vaccine as a precautionary measure.
Tunisia’s healthcare sector is continuing to feel the strain of Covid-19.
Head of the pneumology department at Charles Nicolle Hospital in Tunis, Hichem Aouina, said there remains a shortage of beds in intensive care units (ICUs) at public hospitals.
Aouina told state news agency TAP on 10 January that medical teams are facing insurmountable difficulties, adding that the crisis emerged 10 days ago, when hospitals became unable to provide beds for patients whose health condition had worsened.
This situation led doctors to choose who to save from among the patients, he added.
Elsewhere, Algeria's Pharmaceutical Industry Ministry announced the registration of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine by the National Pharmaceuticals Agency, as part of emergency measures taken to start the vaccination campaign in January.
"The vaccination operation will be carried out either in large exhibition spaces and sports halls, or in local health establishments and polyclinics, according to two established scenarios," the Directorate of Health & Population’s communications manager, Youcef Boukhari, said.
"In the event that we receive a large quantity of vaccines, the operation will be carried out in exhibition spaces and sports halls, but if we receive small amounts of doses in stages, it will be done in polyclinics, as in the context of influenza vaccination.”
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