As other countries plan distribution of COVID vaccines, and the Assad government prepares its first 5,000 doses of the vaccine this week, North and East Syria has no apparent prospects for getting a vaccine. The Assad government will likely exclude North and East Syria from its plans. There have been direct talks on the vaccine between the World Health Organization (WHO) and officials from North and East Syria, according to a statement by Dr. Jiwan Mustafa of the Health Authority of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, but so far these talks have been inconclusive.
“The discussions are ongoing and we have not yet reached a conclusion, but we will insist on this,” Mustafa said, in an interview on December 29, 2020.
The Assad government will be distributing its first 5,000 doses (allocated for a first and second shot to 2,500 people) this week after receiving a shipment of vaccines from China. It also may receive vaccines through the WHO’s program COVAX, a comprehensive effort to deliver vaccines to 92 low-income to middle-income countries who cannot pay for it. In Syria, however, COVAX appears only to be planning distribution to the Assad government, as only the Syrian Arab Republic is listed in its releases on who is designated to receive vaccines.
The Assad government submitted an application to the WHO to receive vaccines through its COVAX program, but this application is not yet public. Syrian Minister of Health Hassan al-Ghabbash stated, “the government is seeking to obtain the Covid-19 vaccine according to several conditions, the most important of which is that it should not be at the expense of Syrian sovereignty and the health of the citizens.” Al-Ghabbash’s wording appears to indicate the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria will be excluded.
Human rights observers have called on the WHO and the international community not to overlook the AANES.
“Those supplying vaccines for Syria should do everything in their power to ensure that Covid-19 vaccines reach those most vulnerable no matter where they are in the country,” said Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Syrian government has never been shy about withholding health care as a weapon of war but playing this game with the vaccine undermines the global effort to control the pandemic.”
Damascus may “politicize” the issue once it receives deliveries of the vaccine, Mustafa had warned in his statement. Based on prior aid delivery practices, it seems certain that the Assad government will reserve the vaccines for its own government officials and loyalist regions, while leaving other regions of Syria to fend for themselves.
According to a statement on February 26 by the AANES Health Authority, the number of officially-recorded COVID cases has risen to 8,605 cases throughout North and East Syria. Of these, there have been 318 deaths from COVID. These officially-recorded case numbers likely represent a small fraction of the total COVID cases, as testing equipment, trained medical personnel, and medical facilities are scarce, following ten years of war and instability.
The United Nations cleared its first vaccine for distribution on December 31, 2020, announcing, “The Pfizer/BioNTech #COVID19 vaccine today became the first vaccine to receive WHO validation for emergency use since the outbreak began.” Countries have been expediting the import and approval processes for the vaccines.
The United Nations has launched “COVAX” last year, in anticipation of vaccine distribution inequity. Under the slogan, “No one is safe, unless everyone is safe,” the COVAX effort seeks to provide vaccines to one-fifth of the populations of low-income countries. The COVAX country designations only name UN-recognized countries as potential recipients of the vaccine. The Syrian Arab Republic is on the list of low-income countries.
According to WHO releases, “The goal of COVAX is to deliver two billion doses of safe, effective vaccines that have passed regulatory approval and/or WHO prequalification by the end of 2021. These vaccines will be offered equally to all participating countries, proportional to their populations, initially prioritising healthcare workers then expanding to cover vulnerable groups, such as the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions. Further doses will then be made available based on country need, vulnerability and COVID-19 threat. The COVAX Facility will also maintain a buffer of doses for emergency and humanitarian use.”