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Palestinian Authority accepts, then cancels, soon-to-expire Covid-19 vaccines from Israel

The expiring vaccines were set to be received as part of a swap that would have seen some of the West Bank's future shipments go to Israel
The West Bank health ministry said about 500,000 Palestinians had now been vaccinated against Covid-19 (AFP)

The Palestinian Authority (PA) has called off plans to receive one million soon-to-expire Covid-19 vaccine doses from Israel.

The occupied West Bank was set to receive the doses in exchange for giving Israel a future shipment of Pfizer vaccines that had been earmarked for the occupied West Bank at a later date. 

The PA was set to receive Israel's expiring Pfizer doses on Friday, but just hours after the deal was announced, it backed out. 

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PA spokesman Ibrahim Melhem announced the cancellation at a joint press conference with Minister of Health Mai Alkaila just hours after the deal had been reported, saying that the initial doses that were sent did not meet agreed-upon specifications. 

"After the technical teams of the Ministry of Health examined the first batch of the Pfizer vaccines that were received this evening from Israel, estimated at 90,000 doses, it was found that they do not conform to the specifications contained in the agreement, and accordingly Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh instructed the Minister of Health to cancel the agreement," Melhem said.

According to Melhem, Shtayyeh ordered the cancellation and the return of the already-shipped vaccines to Israel, as the Palestinians would not accept "about-to-expire" doses. 

In announcing the agreement earlier on Friday, Israel was clear that the vaccine doses were to "expire soon" but did not publicly specify a date. After receiving the first shipment, the Palestinians said the doses were set to expire sooner than they expected. 

It was unclear what other markers, outside of the expiration date, failed to meet PA standards. 

'The great global demand'

Earlier on Friday, PA health minister Alkaila said that all technical aspects related to the vaccinations had been audited by a specialised technical committee within the ministry that tests the safety of vaccines.

At the time, the ministry said that it had accepted Pfizer's offer "in light of the great global demand for vaccines by the countries of the world" and in the hopes that a 70 percent vaccination level could be reached within its population as soon as possible. 

"It was approved to obtain about one million Pfizer doses from the Israeli side, provided that Pfizer will return the same amount to the Israeli side from Palestine's share at the end of this year," Alkaila said just hours before the cancellation was announced. 

Alkaila had stressed that the exchange "is not an agreement with Israel, but with the Pfizer company", but Palestinian leadership still came under heavy criticism on social media following the announcement, with many accusing them of accepting subpar vaccines and suggesting they might not be effective.

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Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's office had also confirmed the swap in a joint statement with the defence and health ministries on Friday.

Israel, which has fully reopened after vaccinating some 85 percent of its adult population, has faced criticism for not sharing its vaccines with the 4.5 million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Under international law, occupying powers are responsible for the health care of the population it controls. 

The PA also came under fire in March for allowing political and security figures to get some of the first doses it had received. 

On Friday, the West Bank health ministry said about 500,000 Palestinians had now been vaccinated against Covid-19 at more than 90 centres in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Currently, around 80,000 people are being vaccinated per day, the ministry said.  

To date, more than 300,000 infections have been recorded in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, including 3,545 deaths.

The coronavirus response in Gaza has been crippled by last month's violence, which devastated infrastructure and reduced entire high-rise buildings and neighbourhood blocks to piles of rubble.