Are COVID-19 vaccines a potential biological weapon in the Middle East?

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“It has happened before and it has been very deliberate.”

Aid and human rights groups say they fear that COVID-19 vaccines could become a tool for governments, rebel groups, and other actors involved in conflicts in the Middle East to advance their own goals at the expense of vulnerable populations.

Using vaccines this way “is a form of indirect, passive biological warfare,” Annie Sparrow, a public health expert at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in New York, told DW.  

“It has happened before and it has been very deliberate.”

Sparrow says at the onset of the Syrian civil war, in 2013, a disease the world had mostly eradicated broke out in Deir ez-Zour.

The country officially eliminated polio in 1995. But medical researchers say that in 2012, the Syrian government deliberately excluded the area – controlled by anti-government forces – from earlier routine vaccination drives.

“This was a man-made outbreak.”

Today there are fears the same sort of thing might happen with COVID-19 vaccines.

THE POLITICS OF VACCINATION

“We have significant concerns for several reasons,” said Sara Kayyali, a Syria expert at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

She said her group is worried about the politics of supplying vaccines to Syria.

Kayyali explains that current and potential closures of border crossings nearest opposition-held areas, where millions of civilians still live, mean that international aid agencies will need permits from the al-Assad government to bring vaccines in.

If they can get permits, they will most likely have to travel through Damascus. And this, Kayyali noted, “involves significant restrictions.”

“The Syrian government is being difficult to make sure that there is dependency on them,” the researcher explained.

“This is no surprise. We have seen them use aid to really punish people before.”

Healthcare as a victim of, or tool in, conflict is nothing new, said Leonard Rubenstein, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

“It’s just that more attention is being paid to it now…One of the examples is what is happening in Israel.”

PALESTINIANS NOT VACCINATED

Healthcare as a victim of, or tool in, conflict is nothing new, said Leonard Rubenstein, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

“It’s just that more attention is being paid to it now…One of the examples is what is happening in Israel.”

Israel has been the fastest in the world to vaccinate its population, with almost 50% of its population already given Covid shots.

London-based human rights organization Amnesty International (AI) says Israel’s vaccine roll-out plan excludes the nearly 5 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip under Israeli military occupation.

According to the United Nations, instructions were also given in the Israeli prison system that Palestinian prisoners were not to be vaccinated either. 

Israel argues that, according to the Oslo Accords, set up in the 1990s to provide a temporary framework for governing Gaza and the West Bank, the Palestinians should take care of their own health needs.

However, as has been pointed out by critics, the Oslo Accords also contain a phrase that says the two parties should cooperate to combat “epidemics or contagious diseases.” In addition, international humanitarian law says that an occupying power must take responsibility for the healthcare of the occupied. Israel usually denies it is occupying the West Bank. 

Meanwhile, 10 human rights and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are urging the Israeli authorities to live up to their legal obligations and ensure that quality vaccines be provided to Palestinians living under Israeli occupation and control in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as well.

The 10 organizations include Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, Amnesty International Israel, B’Tselem – the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights, Medical Human Rights Network IFHHRO, MEDACT, Physicians for Human Rights, Israel and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights.

NO VACCINES BY ‘JEWS AND CHRISTIANS’ MENTALITY

In Yemen, where a deadly conflict has been raging since 2014, the internationally recognized government announced that COVID-19 vaccines, sourced through the World Health Organization’s COVAX facility for poorer countries, would arrive in April or May.

The amount delivered may only cover 20% of the population but the government says it will distribute doses in areas controlled by the rebel Houthi organization, with whom it is fighting, too. The Houthis control the most populated central and northern parts of Yemen.

However, the Houthi rebels have been antagonistic toward aid organizations — for example, only allowing them access to civilians in exchange for medical supplies for their own wounded fighters.

Blockades of vaccination campaigns and disinformation are thought to be responsible for a late-2020 polio outbreak in Houthi-controlled areas.

Religious leaders have told locals not to use “vaccines made by Jews and Christians” and at one stage, the Houthi health minister even said they would develop their own COVID-19 vaccine.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia, which backs the government in south Yemen and has led an aerial war against the Iran-affiliated Houthis, pledged to help fund the purchase of more COVID-19 vaccines for Yemen.

Yet, the Saudi-led coalition has also conducted over 130 attacks on medical facilities in Houthi-held areas between 2014 and 2019, according to the Yemen Archive, which documents human rights abuses in the country.

VIRUS DOESN’T CARE WHETHER YOU ARE PALESTINIAN OR ISRAELI

“There is no naivete about how governments will use these vaccinations,” says Sparrow

Public health expert Sparrow doesn’t doubt that different parties to various regional conflicts might try to use the COVID-19 vaccine to advance their own agendas.

“I don’t think that you can have any naivete about how governments will use these vaccinations,” she told DW.

“But what is stupid is that by not giving people a shot in the arm, governments are shooting themselves in the foot. You cannot actually protect your country unless you vaccinate everybody, at the same time.”

Sparrow explains that the more a population remains unvaccinated, the more opportunity a virus has to mutate. Those mutations may eventually be able to re-infect people who have already been vaccinated if the virus isn’t taken out of circulation, she said.

“The virus doesn’t care whether you are Palestinian or Israeli… It’s only job is to infect and evolve.”

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