Middle East nations push booster shots to guard against variants

A medical worker prepares a vial of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine at Clalit Health Service's center in the Cinema City complex in Jerusalem, Sept 22, 2021. (MAYA ALLERUZZO / AP)

As a global debate continues over the need for COVID-19 booster shots, many nations in the Middle East seem to have made up their minds as to which side they are on.

Having rolled out mass inoculation programs successfully, countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Israel are focusing on providing additional vaccine doses to their citizens as they do not want to take any chances amid the threat of new virus variants.

Experts in the region said they can understand the thinking behind the moves, noting that governments need to be a step ahead of the virus curve to prevent the risk of new infections and safeguard the economic recovery. 

The best global solution is not to restrict vaccine access, so as to sustain the progress made by many countries, they said.

Likewise, as giving booster vaccines is widely supported and recommended by the UAE doctors, the UAE has also embarked upon giving booster vaccinations

Ahmed Nisar Laghari, chief medical officer at Response Plus Medical

Ahmed Nisar Laghari, chief medical officer at Response Plus Medical, an integrated healthcare provider in Abu Dhabi, said the UAE has been committed to prioritizing the well-being of its citizens, which ensured robust COVID-19 testing.

“Likewise, as giving booster vaccines is widely supported and recommended by the UAE doctors, the UAE has also embarked upon giving booster vaccinations,” Laghari told China Daily.

The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Israel and Turkey are among those that have rolled out COVID booster shots. Israel is offering boosters to fully inoculated citizens above the age of 12 while Turkey has begun offering a fourth dose to would-be travelers. Saudi Arabia has been giving booster shots to high-risk groups and soon, to those aged 60 and above.

Governments have opted for booster campaigns despite an appeal from the World Health Organization to suspend such programs to ensure availability of the jabs to the more needy populations in the world, especially the still unvaccinated people in many poor countries.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has urged countries with a robust supply of vaccines to halt booster shots for the rest of the year, citing unequal vaccine distribution and lack of evidence for its necessity.

READ MORE: Israel preparing for possible fourth vaccine dose

Avi Weissman, deputy director at the Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa, which hosts one of the largest COVID-19 facilities in Israel, said while he agrees with the WHO that the world needs to vaccinate as many people as possible, it was also “natural” for Israel to take care of its citizens.

“Because the Delta variant is so virulent, more people are being infected. Now, we’re seeing mostly unvaccinated people getting the disease and it is spreading again in the country,” Weissman told China Daily, adding that there are also cases where people are getting reinfected.

In late August, Israel expanded a COVID-19 booster program to cover all people above the age of 12 after authorities noted encouraging results from such campaign earlier on senior citizens.

Israel, which is now experiencing its fourth wave, was the first country to inoculate a majority of its citizens using the Pfizer-BioNtech-developed COVID-19 vaccines. But in early September, it experienced one of the world's highest daily infection rates, topping some 11,000.

“The problem is that (the) unvaccinated are so young, and they go to the Intensive Care Units, occupying the beds and we’re afraid that we won’t have enough beds for people who have other diseases. This is what we’re trying to control, the situation – and yes, trying to deal with it,” said Weissman, who is a medical doctor.

In Bahrain, authorities have announced the availability of booster shots for those 18 and above who completed six months of the second dose of the Sputnik V vaccine.

“I think the booster decision is adequate. Indeed, combatting the coronavirus is a race against a deadly virus, in which every country must strive to always stay ahead,” said Anis Khayati, an economics professor at the University of Bahrain.

The professor said it is important that the economy remains open as many citizens, the state and various economic sectors have “paid a heavy economic price” for the restrictions and quarantine measures throughout 2020.

Bahrain's decision to move to the third dose was a difficult one, Khayati said, given that the WHO had expressed concerns about the use of booster shots at this stage.

“But Bahrain was faced with the choice of either having to face another set of restrictions, thus further harming the economy and the society, or doubling down on vaccinations. And it chose the last solution through booster shots which showed its effectiveness in some countries that had previously adopted it,” Khayati said.

On Sept 15, the WHO said that most countries in the Middle East reported a fall in the number of coronavirus cases and deaths in recent weeks. But it warned that the situation remains fragile and unpredictable.

“This pandemic is far from over, but the global vaccination response combined with global natural immunity from COVID survivors has been helping to reduce the number of new infections, and in particular the number of deaths compared to what we might have seen if there (were) no vaccines available,” said Ben Hanson, consultant physician and chief executive of Dubai-based consultancy Rivers International Management Services.

“We need to anticipate that every several months, there’s going to be another variant and we need to be prepared for it. We don’t know how it’s going to behave. Eventually either everybody’s going to be vaccinated or everybody’s going to be infected,” added Weissman, from Israel’s Rambam Health Care Campus.

“There’s still lot of work to do and I think this is the main way to go…to build trust between the people and the medical system.”

The UAE and Bahrain were the first Middle Eastern nations to approve the emergency use of the Sinopharm-developed COVID-19 vaccine in December before it was recognized by the WHO this year.

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Other vaccines available in the UAE include those developed by Pfizer-BioNTech, Oxford-AstraZeneca and Moderna, as well as the Russian Sputnik V jabs.

To date, at least 83 percent of UAE’s nearly 10 million people had been fully vaccinated. The authorities said a booster shot was compulsory for residents who received their second dose of the Sinopharm jab more than six months ago.

This booster shot campaign is “totally expected as Sinopharm is an inactivated vaccine (a first-generation COVID vaccine). All inactivated vaccines have the same problem – low immunogenicity. That means the immune system doesn’t make a strong response to the vaccine,” said Hanson from Rivers International Management Services.

Sinopharm vaccines still have a significant role to play globally in 2021 and 2022, as there had been strong evidence that it has been effective in saving lives and reducing ICU admissions and hospitalizations, including against the Delta variant, Hanson said.