MANAMA - Bahrain has turned a mall largely emptied by the coronavirus pandemic into a vaccination hub as the Gulf state races to protect its population from COVID-19.

Sitra Mall used to draw people in to access government offices, but the pandemic closed those outlets and their services were offered virtually.

With only a few fast food outlets and a supermarket open, Bahrain's health authorities this week turned the mall into a giant vaccination hub.

"A lot of people are coming per hour," said Basma Mahmoud, a public health and epidemiology consultant at the new centre.

Behind her, people streamed up escalators and waited on socially distanced chairs lining walkways where shoppers would have wandered.

Mahmoud said the centre will speed up Bahrain's progress towards getting more than 50% of the population fully vaccinated.

Bahrain offers citizens and residents four vaccines free of charge: the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, one manufactured by China's Sinopharm, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, and Russia's Sputnik V. Johnson & Johnson's vaccine has also been approved for emergency use.

Sitra mall offers the Pfizer and Sinopharm shots.

Daily case numbers in the small island state started to fall from a mid-February high, but rose again in recent days. Bahrain eased some of its coronavirus restrictions ten days ago, including allowing eating inside restaurants and reopening educational institutions to students.

(Reporting by Hamad Mohammed Writing by Lisa Barrington Editing by Giles Elgood) ((;))