The Health Ministry kickstarted a vaccination campaign against COVID-19 on Sunday, with the first shots of a Chinese state-owned Sinopharm vaccine being given to healthcare workers at Ismailia’s Abou Khalifa isolation hospital.
In a nationally televised broadcast, Abdel Moneim Selim, an intensive care unit doctor, was administered a vaccination, with Health Minister Hala Zayed standing nearby.
However, Moneim Selim’s colleagues have not been as keen to join him in participating in the state-organized vaccination campaign. Two Doctors Syndicate members told Mada Masr that a large number of doctors have opted out of receiving the Sinopharm vaccine, preferring instead to wait for the arrival of the Pfizer and Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines, especially as many doctors are currently relying on coronavirus protocol medications as a preventative measure against the virus.
Reticence among doctors includes those at Abu Khalifa Hospital, where only 87 out of the hospital’s 200 staff members agreed to receive the shots, according to the Health Ministry spokesperson.
Abou Khalifa’s media officer, Dr. Mohamed Reda, explained that between 140 to 160 people actually work in the hospital, including doctors, nurses, secretaries, janitors, security guards and others, and that they are divided into two groups, each working for 14 days. He added that when the ministry asked the hospital to circulate a questionnaire last Thursday to specify the number of people who wanted to take the vaccine, only 87 of 100 staff members who were available that day registered their names. These 87 members received the shots two days ago. Reda added that the questionnaire will be circulated among the remaining hospital staff next week, and the ministry will be informed about those who want to be vaccinated.
Plans for the vaccine campaign emerged quickly over the weekend, after President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi gave the word that the rollout was set to begin while speaking to chief editors of national press outlets at the Saturday inauguration of several development projects near Port Said, over a month after doses of the Sinopharm vaccine were delivered to Egypt from the UAE.
A medical source, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, stated that the government has already received an additional shipment of the Sinopharm vaccine, along with a shipment of AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine. The two shipments will be used in the first stage to vaccinate isolation and chest and fever hospital doctors in the coming days and provided to the elderly who suffer from chronic diseases at a later stage.
According to the source, who attended a meeting held by a number of Health Ministry officials on Saturday, the ministry was considering a mechanism to grant doctors the right to choose between the Sinopharm vaccine and the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, stressing that the two vaccines will be provided free of charge to doctors in the first stage.
The ministry’s decision to allow doctors to choose between the two vaccines has stoked suspicion, according to Doctors Syndicate member Kareem Mesbah. For Mesbah, one of the major reasons doctors have declined to participate in the vaccination program comes down to a crisis of confidence in the ministry.
The relationship between the two sides has been marked by disputes since the pandemic took hold in Egypt. The Health Ministry was not forthcoming with doctors when setting up the first isolation hospital. Hospitals dealing with outbreaks among medical staff have had requests for help from the ministry go unheeded. Payouts for martyr benefits to the families of those who have died from complications of COVID-19 contracted on the job have been delayed. And several doctors who were critical on social media of the government’s handling of the pandemic have been arrested. Doctors Ibrahim Bedawy and Mohamed Hamed were released last week, after spending more than seven months in remand detention for directing criticism online at Prime Minister Mostafa Madbuly, who blamed the severity of the coronavirus situation during the spring on doctors’ neglect. Medical staff Mohamed al-Fawwal, Ahmed Safwat, Ahmed Sabra and Hani Kahil remain in remand detention.
In Mesbah’s opinion, the ministry should contact well-established doctors and professors who are trusted by the majority of medical staff to serve as mediators to convince medical staff to take the vaccine.
Ibrahim al-Zayat, another syndicate member, suggested that many doctors who work or have worked in isolation hospitals refused to take the vaccine because they rely on drugs such as hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin, which are prescribed to mitigate or prevent coronavirus symptoms listed in the treatment protocol approved by the Cabinet’s coronavirus committee and are disbursed to patients and medical teams in isolation hospitals only.
Zayat recounted how several doctors have told him how effective they perceived the two drugs to be in preventing COVID-19 infection or alleviating symptoms for patients, and they have described a preference for depending on the drug protocol while waiting for a vaccine they perceive to be safer than the Sinopharm doses on offer from the government.
Internationally conducted studies have cast doubt on the effectiveness of Ivermectin, and the World Health Organization discontinued its recommended use of hydroxychloroquine in July 2020, citing trials that showed it “produce[d] little or no reduction in the mortality of hospitalized COVID-19 patients.”
According to an anesthesiology and intensive care professor at Al-Azhar University who worked at the Agouza isolation hospital, Egypt continues to recommend the administration of Ivermectin not only to patients who have tested positive but also to those who have come in contact with positive cases and to medical staff. He added that the Health Ministry hands out preventative medicine to the staff working in isolation hospitals, which includes Ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, both of which he takes and believes to be effective.
While China and the UAE have said the Sinopharm vaccine to be 86 percent effective in clinical trials, doctors and medical professionals in Egypt voiced concerns about the use of a Chinese coronavirus vaccine to Mada Masr in December, citing a lack of transparency because neither country has released the full data from late-stage clinical trials.
As of Tuesday, 342 doctors have died from complications arising from COVID-19, according to the Doctors Syndicate.
While there are 35,485 active cases according to the latest Health Ministry data, the number of cases in Egypt is assumed to be higher than the official toll. In December, WHO Regional Health Emergency Director Richard Brennan said that the number of daily COVID-19 cases recorded by Egypt’s Health Ministry does “not reflect the actual number of infections in the country” and that Egypt has “decided to focus its tests on a certain group of citizens who suffer from complicated diseases or are in critical condition.” Brennan’s assessment confirms Mada Masr’s report from last month, which found that a large number of cases are unaccounted for and that the official count mostly represents patients with the severest symptoms.