Yemen to get first COVID-19 shots by March through COVAX, Saudi could pay for others

Lisa Barrington and Mohamed Ghobari
·2-min read
Spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Sanaa

By Lisa Barrington and Mohamed Ghobari

DUBAI/ADEN (Reuters) - Yemen expects a first batch of 2.3 million COVID-19 vaccine doses by March through the COVAX vaccine-sharing facility, and Saudi Arabia could separately finance shots for around 50% of the population, agencies involved have said.

Six years of war in Yemen have created what the United Nations describes as the world's biggest humanitarian crisis. What little remains of its health system relies on foreign aid.

"The government of Yemen has applied to the COVAX initiative to cover the initial needs of 23% of the population of Yemen, about 14 million doses," Philippe Duamelle, UNICEF’s representative in Yemen told Reuters.

"A first allocation of 2.3 million doses has been confirmed and should be available by end-February, beginning of March, depending on the suppliers' availability of vaccines."

COVAX is co-led by the GAVI alliance, which secures vaccines for poor countries, the World Health Organization, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Yemen will receive the AstraZeneca vaccine through COVAX as this can be used in the existing cold chain infrastructure, Duamelle said.

The aim is to vaccinate 70% of Yemen's population. The health ministry for Yemen's internationally recognised government on Friday said it had applied to Saudi Arabia's King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre (KSRelief) for it to finance vaccines for 50% of the population.

KSRelief could not immediately be reached for comment. Saudi's finance minister last month said his country was talking to manufacturers to provide COVID-19 vaccines to low-income countries including Yemen.

Yemen is divided between the government temporarily based in the south and the Houthi movement that ousted it from power in the capital, Sanaa, in the north in late 2014. A military coalition led by Saudi Arabia intervened in early 2015 to return the government to power.

The government of Yemen intends the COVAX vaccines to be distributed throughout the country, including to Houthi areas, health minister Ali Walidi told Reuters.

"GAVI, WHO and UNICEF teams are in constant discussion with the government of Yemen and the authorities in the north to define the logistical arrangements and the vaccination modalities," Duamelle said.

Houthi health authorities told Reuters they had no money or plans to buy vaccines.

Yemen's government has reported 2,122 coronavirus cases, including 615 deaths. Houthi authorities, who control most large urban centres, have not provided figures since May when they said there were four cases and one death.

The U.N. and aid agencies say these official figures vastly underestimate the spread of the virus.

Confirmed cases have levelled off to a couple of new cases a day since September, and suspected cases presenting at health centres and in communities have slowed, aid agencies say, concluding that the first wave of the epidemic has passed.

(Reporting by Lisa Barrington and Mohamed Ghobari; Editing by Nick Macfie)