First batch of COVID vaccines lands in opposition-held Syria

IDLIB, Syria — Syria’s last rebel-held enclave received its first batch of COVID-19 vaccines on Wednesday, with a refrigerated truck offloading over 50,000 of United Nations-secured jabs in the overcrowded province.

The AstraZeneca vaccines were delivered to Idlib province through a border crossing with Turkey, the northwestern territory’s only gateway to the outside world. Idlib health official Yasser Najib said jabs were provided through the UN-led COVAX program for the world’s poorest nations.

More vaccines were expected to arrive in government-controlled Damascus in the coming hours.

Given Syria’s ongoing conflict, vaccine delivery is divided— the majority going through Damascus for government-held areas while the rest goes through the border with Turkey. The UN will go through Damascus to deliver over 200,000 jabs to cover government-held areas and Kurdish-dominated territory in the northeast.

The Idlib region, home to 4 million people, is seeing a new rise in infection rates. The area is home to over 2 million displaced persons who live in tent camps and temporary housing. While fighting has largely subsided, occasional military operations still violate a cease-fire that has been in place since March 2020.

After nearly recording no cases in the past month, infection has been on the rise in northwestern Syria portending a new surge, said Naser alMuhawish, who works in the labs monitoring cases in the area. Over 21,000 infection cases and over 640 deaths have been recorded in northwestern Syria.

In government areas, more than 21,000 infection cases and over 1,400 deaths have been recorded.

The World Health Organization had said the vaccination campaign in war-torn Syria was expected to start in April, and aims to inoculate 20% of the population by the end of 2021.

Najib, the Idlib health official, said the inoculation in northwestern Syria will begin early in May and use the 53,800 jabs to administer a first dose to doctors, nurses and frontline aid workers. It is unclear when the next batch would be delivered. The vaccines are stored in a warehouse in a border town.