BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon’s private sector is stepping in to speed up the vaccination campaign against the coronavirus by importing at least 1 million doses of Russian vaccines, with the aim of reopening businesses struggling through an unprecedented economic crisis.
The first batch of 50,000 doses of Sputnik V vaccines arrived early Friday, making Lebanon one of few nations where the COVID-19 vaccine rollout is being boosted by the private sector.
Lebanon, a small nation of 6 million people, including around 1 million Syrian refugees, began its inoculation campaign in mid-February after finalizing a deal for some 2 million doses with Pfizer.
According to the Lebanese Health Ministry, the country has so far received 224,640 Pfizer-BioNTech doses over the past six weeks with around 175,000 doses already administered. Lebanon’s government also began receiving AstraZeneca vaccines this week, with 33,600 doses that arrived on Wednesday.
The Pfizer vaccines are funded by the World Bank while AstraZeneca vaccines will be provided under the U.N.-backed COVAX program.
Lebanon is currently in the grip of the worst economic and financial crisis in its modern history, exacerbated by lockdown measures related to the pandemic. Tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs and the local currency has lost 90% of its value against the dollar. That’s led to inflation and shortages of food products and medicines.
According to the World Bank, more than half the population is now living under the poverty line.
Jacques Sarraf, a Lebanese businessman and head of the Lebanese Russian Business Council, said he hopes the Russian vaccines help safely reopen businesses around the country.
“Our first target will be private companies, factories, banks — and this is important to reactivate institutions,” he told The Associated Press in an interview.
Sarraf, who played a major role in bringing the Sputnik V vaccines to Lebanon, said priority will be given for employees at companies and business institutions, including those of Lebanon’s national carrier Middle East Airlines and the Banking Association. With the private sector moving in, the numbers of people inoculated daily will multiply by more than three times compared with the current pace, he predicted.
Sarraf said the Sputnik V will be sold at a price of $38 for the required two doses, in addition to hospital fees. The minimum monthly salary in Lebanon is currently 675,000 Lebanese pounds, the equivalent of about $60.
Sarraf said Lebanon will be receiving between 100,000-200,000 doses every three weeks until the goal of 1 million doses is reached.
Some businessmen and politicians have already expressed readiness to pay for people in their electoral districts to get vaccinated.
Assem Araji who heads the parliament health committee, said so far only around 950,000 people in Lebanon have registered to take the vaccines, or about 20 percent of the population.
“The vibrant private sector in Lebanon will make a difference,” he told the AP. “This will speed up the inoculation process and will reduce pressure on the public sector.”
He said Lebanon needs about 10 million vaccines and most of them have been secured, adding that the numbers will start increasing over the coming weeks with the arrival of Sputnik V and AstraZeneca vaccines.
The international aid organization Doctors Without Borders said Friday it started vaccinating elderly people and medical personnel in nursing homes as part of an agreement with the Health Ministry. It said that since its vaccination began last Friday, some 1,050 people have been inoculated by the group’s mobile teams.
Lebanon has so far recorded nearly 455,381 infections since the first coronavirus case was recorded in February last year, with 6,013 deaths.
Lebanese authorities decided on Friday to implement a three-day nationwide shutdown during the Easter holiday in early April as well as Eid al-Fitr that marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, in mid-May.
The decision to shut down the country comes after a sharp increase in cases following Christmas and New Year’s, when some 80,000 expatriates came to Lebanon to celebrate the holiday season.