'Vaccine apartheid': Palestinians left behind as Israel sprints ahead with COVID vaccinations

An Israeli man receives his second Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine from a Magen David Adom national emergency service volunteer, at a private nursing home, in Netanya, Israel
An Israeli man receives his second Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine from a Magen David Adom national emergency service volunteer, at a private nursing home, in Netanya, Israel Copyright Oded Balilty/The Associated Press.
Copyright Oded Balilty/The Associated Press.
By Katy Dartford with AP
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The World Health Organization has raised "concerns" about the unequal distribution of coronavirus vaccines in the country.


Israel is sprinting ahead in the global vaccination race having already inoculated around a quarter of its population. But critics such as the World Health Organization (WHO) have raised "concerns" about the unequal distribution of coronavirus vaccines in the country.

Boasting one of the earliest and most successful vaccination campaigns in the world, some 2 million doses have been administered since late December.

The campaign includes Arab citizens of Israel and Palestinians living in annexed east Jerusalem.

The country has now struck a deal with Pfizer to share medical data with the international drug giant in exchange for a significant stock of its vaccine.

Proponents say the agreement could allow Israel to become the first country to vaccinate most of its population.

Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip however have yet to be inoculated. COVID-19 vaccines are only expected to be delivered there in the coming months, according to a Palestinian health official.

"It's an ethical labyrinth," Lawrence Gostin, a Professor of Global Health Law at Georgetown University and Director of the WHO collaborating center on National and Global Health Law, told Euronews.

"The truth is all high-income countries have done it, European countries have done it, the UK has done it, the US, Canada they've all tried to advance purchase.

"There are no two ways about it, it is wrong. It's one example of the many inequities in the world," he added.

"Dr. Tedros [Director-General of the WHO] said yesterday there are certain very low-income countries that have just 25 doses of the vaccine, not 25 thousands or 25 million. That's 25. Europe is trying to vaccinate 70 percent of its population by the summer, the same with the United States and the UK.

"We are seeing an extremely unequal world...foreign ministers in Africa call it a COVID vaccine apartheid because the rich have it, the poor do not," said Gostin.

Yasser Buzieah, Director General of Public Health at the Palestinian Health Ministry, said the Palestinian Authority (PA) will get the first vaccines through a WHO-led partnership with humanitarian organizations known as COVAX.

"We really have to give a pat on the back to WHO and also to the Gavi Alliance for vaccines and CEPI that have really tried to put this COVAX facility together. They are still trying to provide vaccines by the end of the year, not immediately, to 20 percent of the population of low-income countries," said Gostin.

"We may not even get that 20 per cent, but would Europe accept 20 per cent of its population being vaccinated by the end of the year. No. Why should poorer countries do it? And even then they may fail because richer countries are hoarding vaccines".

"It's basically a free for all, if you have the influence, the money, the data, you get the vaccine. If you're poor or marginalized not to mention prisoners, refugees, and others. We are really living in a really unjust world and it should be tugging at our moral conscience".

The Palestinian Authority's reluctance to publicly ask Israel for help could reflect concerns that doing so would open it up to allegations from Israel and others that it was unable to provide for its own people or that it is not ready for statehood.

Israel captured the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem - territories the Palestinian seek for their future state - in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Under the Oslo accords signed in the 1990s, the Palestinian Authority is responsible for health care in the territories it administers, while both sides are to work together to combat epidemics.


Head of the WHO office for the Palestinian territories, Dr Gerald Rockenschaub, said that from a public health standpoint Israel has an interest in the Palestinians being vaccinated.

"It will be very difficult to ensure full protection of the Israeli population, while not ensuring also that adequate vaccinations are done on the Palestinian side," he said, pointing to the estimated 140 thousand Palestinians who regularly cross into Israel for work.

Meanwhile, both Israel and the Palestinian Authority have struggled to contain their outbreaks.

On Monday, Israel reported a record 10,000 new coronavirus infections, leading to fears from the country's coronavirus tsar, Nachman Ash, that a single dose of the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine may be "less effective than we had thought".

By contrast, those who had received their second dose of the Pfizer vaccine had a six to 12-fold increase in antibodies, according to data released by Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer.


Israel's health ministry also announced on Tuesday that it is preparing to ramp up its vaccination efforts to 250 thousand people per day, including people as young as 40.

Watch the full interview with Professor Lawrence Gostin in the media player above

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