Lebanon's Health Ministry grants 20 companies permission to access COVID-19 vaccines

“Twenty private companies have received permission from the ministry to negotiate. Thirteen companies for Sputnik V vaccine and seven companies for the Sinopharm vaccine,” Hasan said

  
Men receive a Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine dose during a coronavirus vaccination campaign at Lebanese American University Medical Center-Rizk Hospital in Beirut, Lebanon February 16, 2021.

Men receive a Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine dose during a coronavirus vaccination campaign at Lebanese American University Medical Center-Rizk Hospital in Beirut, Lebanon February 16, 2021.

REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

BEIRUT: The Health Ministry has granted 20 firms from the private sector permission to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies producing coronavirus vaccines, the first approval in Lebanon to allow the independent procurement of jabs, Caretaker Health Minister Hamad Hasan announced Wednesday.

“Twenty private companies have received permission from the ministry to negotiate. Thirteen companies for Sputnik V vaccine and seven companies for the Sinopharm vaccine,” Hasan said in an interview with Tele Liban.

He added that two other companies were denied permission as they requested exclusivity permission, which he said was “a clear violation of Lebanese law.”

Since the Health Ministry’s announcement last month of the nationwide COVID-19 vaccination deployment plan, inquiries from the private sector to import their own quantities of vaccines have trickled in.

The interest has so far been from private firms hoping to vaccinate their employees, as well as university hospitals such as American University of Beirut and Lebanese American University interested in vaccinating staff and students so they can reopen their educational facilities.

However, the Health Ministry has stated that any buyer must not only seek its approval, but also that the vaccine must have been granted emergency use status by the scientific technical committee, which was established a few weeks ago to scrutinize vaccine development data.

The committee, which includes health experts such as Dr. Abdul Rahman Bizri, head of the national coronavirus vaccine committee, granted a license to import the Russian-developed vaccine Sputnik V.

The caretaker health minister met with the Russian ambassador to Lebanon on various occasions over the last few months to discuss the procurement of the Sputnik V vaccine and the required details, MP Assem Araji and head of the parliamentary health committee told The Daily Star.

Hasan told Tele Liban that the Russian Investment Fund, responsible for foreign investment in the country, would cooperate only through Lebanon’s Health Ministry, as the vaccine requires logistical technicalities that have to be monitored, such as having to be transported at temperatures below 18 degrees Centigrade and only having a two-hour shelf-life once defrosted.

The jab’s phase 3 clinical trials, published recently in the British medical journal The Lancet, revealed it to have a 91.6 percent efficacy level at preventing coronavirus infection, and complete protection against hospitalization and death.

Bizri announced earlier this month that the Russian Embassy had donated 200,000 doses of their homegrown vaccine to Lebanon but the embassy has since said the news was untrue, and any provision of the vaccine will be arranged through the Russian Direct Investment Fund.

Furthermore, Araji warned that despite the Health Ministry’s approval, private companies may still find it difficult to acquire the jab, because of a shortage of the vaccination in Russia. He said it may take private companies two or three months to begin imports.

Despite Hasan’s announcement that seven companies could begin negotiations with Sinopharm, the Chinese state-owned pharmaceutical company, Lebanon’s scientific technical committee is yet to give formal approval to the product.

Araji revealed that the health mMinister and the Chinese ambassador to Lebanon had held talks regarding procurement of the Sinopharm vaccine, but no deal has yet been announced.

Some of the interest from the private sector stems from politicians including Michel Daher and Fouad Makhzoumi, who are both interested in procuring vaccines for their respective charitable arms.

A spokesperson for the Makhzoumi Foundation told The Daily Star that the NGO has orchestrated a vaccination plan for beneficiaries of their foundation and the public, but have run into obstacles with the Health Ministry.

Despite receiving permission, they are still waiting on local pharmaceutical companies to be authorized to deal with the vaccines as it is a medical product, but such access has not yet been granted by the government.

Marliene Daher of the Michel Daher Social Foundation shared the Makhzoumi Foundation’s troubles, and said they are waiting on the Health Ministry to make a deal with the Russians which would allow private initiatives to access the vaccine.

Lebanon has so far vaccinated some 27,000 citizens, but physicians are warning that with such a slow rollout, the involvement of the private sector is essential to speed up immunization and help achieve 80 percent herd immunity level, which would allow society to reopen and curtail the virus.

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