DAMASCUS, Syria — The Syrian government received a batch of 203,000 COVID-19 vaccines Thursday, the health minister said, in a move aimed at speeding up a sluggish inoculation process in the war-torn country.
The arrival of the United Nations-secured jabs came as a new wave of infections has overwhelmed medical centers around Syria. The AstraZeneca vaccines will be part of a campaign aiming to vaccinate 20% of the country’s population before the end of the year.
Syria’s government controls two-thirds of the country, with the rest held by rebels and Kurdish factions. Millions have fled the country or been displaced, and the war has killed some half a million people from the pre-war population of 23 million.
Health Minister Hassan Ghabbash made the announcement during a news conference held in the capital Damascus. He said the vaccine will be given first to frontline workers, the elderly and those with chronic diseases.
Akjemal Magtymova, the representative of the World Health Organization in Syria, said that the government drafted a plan with the WHO and U.N. children’s agency UNICEF to distribute the vaccine equally across the country.
Thursday’s announcement came a day after Syria’s last rebel-held enclave received its first batch of 53,800 COVID-19 vaccines, brought in from neighboring Turkey.
The 203,000 jabs that arrived in Damascus will cover government-held areas and those under the control of Kurdish fighters in the northeast. Hundreds of thousands more are scheduled to arrive in the coming months.
“The priority for immunization will be frontline health workers who are the first line of defense against COVID,” said Ted Chaiban, regional director for the Middle East and north Africa at UNICEF. Speaking with The Associated Press from neighboring Jordan, Chaiban added that after health workers, older people will be vaccinated.
The Syrian government has registered over 21,500 cases — including 1,483 deaths — in areas under its control since the first case was reported in March 2020. Over 21,000 infections and over 640 deaths have been recorded in rebel-held northwestern Syria, while the Kurdish areas in the northeast registered 14,400 cases including 477 deaths.
Officials in government-controlled areas had already rolled out limited vaccinations following an announcement by Damascus in February that it received an undetermined amount of vaccine from an unnamed friendly country.
Separately, the United Arab Emirates said it sent a shipment of COVID-19 vaccine doses that arrived Tuesday in Damascus to help Syria fight the pandemic. It didn’t say how many doses or which vaccine.
The WHO had said the vaccination campaign in Syria was expected to start in April. It aims to inoculate 20% of the population by the end of 2021.