RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) – Israel will begin rolling out a major coronavirus vaccination campaign next week after the prime minister personally contacted the head of a major pharmaceutical company. Millions of Palestinians living under Israeli control will have to wait much longer.
Rich countries worldwide are seizing scarce supplies of new vaccines as poor countries largely rely on a World Health Organization program yet to get off the ground. There are few places where competition is closer to each other than in Israel and the territories it has occupied for more than half a century.
Next year, the trajectory of the pandemic could vary widely, which has so far happily ignored the Middle East’s national borders and political hostilities. Israelis could soon return to normal life and an economic resurgence, even if the virus threatens Palestinian towns and villages just a few miles away.
Israel reached an agreement with the pharmaceutical company Pfizer to supply 8 million doses of its newly approved vaccine – enough to cover nearly half of Israel’s 9 million population, given that each person requires two doses. That came after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally contacted Pfizer Chief Executive Albert Bourla in person several times, boasting that at one point he could reach the CEO at 2 AM.
Israel has mobile vaccination units with refrigerators that can keep Pfizer shots at the required minus 70 degrees Celsius (minus 94 Fahrenheit). It plans to start vaccinations as early as next week, with a capacity of more than 60,000 shots per day. Israel reached a separate agreement with Moderna earlier this month to purchase 6 million doses of its vaccine – enough for an additional 3 million Israelis.
Israel’s vaccination campaign will include Jewish settlers living deep in the West Bank, who are Israeli citizens, but not the 2.5 million Palestinians in the area.
They will have to wait for the low-budget Palestinian Authority to run parts of the occupied West Bank in accordance with the mid-term peace agreements reached in the 1990s. Israel conquered the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, areas the Palestinians seek for their future state, in the 1967 war in the Middle East.
The PA hopes to get vaccines through a WHO-led partnership with humanitarian organizations known as COVAX, which aims to provide free vaccines to up to 20% of the population of poor countries, many of which have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic.
But the program has only secured a fraction of the 2 billion doses it hopes to purchase next year, has not yet confirmed actual deals, and is short of cash. Rich countries have already set aside about 9 billion of the estimated 12 billion doses the pharmaceutical industry expects to produce next year.
Complicating matters is the fact that the Palestinians have only one refrigeration unit – in the oasis city of Jericho – that can store the Pfizer vaccine. They belong to nearly 3 billion people worldwide for whom a lack of sufficient cooling capacity can be a major obstacle.
Dr. Ali Abed Rabbo, a senior Palestinian health official, said the PA is in talks with Pfizer and Moderna – whose vaccines require additional cold storage – as well as AstraZeneca and the makers of a largely untested Russian vaccine., but has not yet signed any agreements outside of COVAX.
The PA hopes to vaccinate 20% of the population through COVAX, starting with health workers, he said. “The rest will depend on Palestine’s purchasing of the global supply, and we are partnering with several companies,” he said.
Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority are struggling to contain their outbreaks, which have fed each other as people travel back and forth – mainly tens of thousands of Palestinian workers working in Israel. Israel has reported more than 350,000 cases, including more than 3,000 deaths.
The Palestinian Authority has reported more than 85,000 cases in the West Bank, including more than 800 deaths, and the outbreak has intensified in recent weeks. The situation is even worse in Gaza, home to 2 million Palestinians, which has been under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade since the Hamas militant group took power in 2007. Authorities there have reported more than 30,000 cases, including 220 deaths.
Now that the Hamas rulers in Gaza are shunned by the international community, the territory will also depend on the Palestinian Authority. This means that it may take several months before large-scale vaccinations are carried out in the impoverished coastline.
Dr. Gerald Rockenschaub, the head of the WHO office for the Palestinian Territories, said the PA will deliver vaccines to Gaza, but they will arrive in batches and it will take time to reach the first 20%. “We hope the first vaccines will arrive sometime in the first quarter of next year,” he said.
Israeli Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch told Kan Radio that Israel was in the process of getting a surplus of vaccines for Israelis and that “if we see Israel’s demands met and we have additional capacity, we will definitely consider helping the Palestinian Authority. ” He said this would help prevent a flare-up of outbreaks in Israel.
Dr. Ashi Shalmon, an official with the Israeli Ministry of Health, said his approach is in line with previous agreements. The Oslo Accords require the PA to maintain international vaccination standards and for the parties to exchange information and cooperate in combating epidemics.
Israel, which plans to start vaccinating health workers and nursing home residents, plans to issue special “passports” to those vaccinated, exempt them from restrictions and pave the way for the resurgence of travel and trade.
But the pandemic would rage on in Palestinian cities like Bethlehem – where hotels and shops had been vacant for months and Christmas celebrations were usually called off – even as the sense of normalcy is restored in Israel and in nearby settlements.
Yet tens of thousands of Palestinians work in Israel and the settlements. They could potentially transmit the virus to Israelis who have not been vaccinated, slowing Israel’s path to herd immunity, the point where the virus can no longer spread easily.
Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, a group advocating for more equitable health care, says Israel has a legal obligation as an occupying power to purchase and distribute vaccines to Palestinians. It says Israel must also ensure that vaccines that do not comply with its own safety guidelines – such as the Russian shot – are not distributed in areas under its control.
“Israel still retains control over many aspects of Palestinians’ lives, be it checkpoints, importing goods and medication, and controlling people’s movement,” said Ghada Majadle, director of operations. of the group in the Palestinian territories.
“The Palestinian health system, both in the West Bank and Gaza, is in a dire state, mainly (because of) restrictions imposed by Israel.”
Associated Press writers Jelal Hassan in Ramallah, West Bank, Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem and Fares Akram in Gaza City, Gaza Strip contributed to this report.