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Covid vaccine: troubling signs from the Middle East?

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By Niall McCrae

If it’s good enough for the emirs, it’s good enough for the people. On 9th December 2020 the United Arab Emirates became the first country to approve the Chinese Covid-19 vaccine, produced by Sinopharm. This was two weeks before China, and followed a phase three trial in four Middle-East countries. 

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The king of Bahrain was one of the first to receive the jab after trials were completed. But as reported by Diplomat (16th January) not all doctors were keen to use this particular vaccine. They may have been concerned by the rush to please Beijing and the history of ethical oversight by the Chinese pharmaceutical industry. Closer ties with China are good for trade, but the encroachment of biomedical surveillance is a threat to personal liberty and privacy (Sinopharm collaborated with Abu Dhabi company Group 42, which specialises in artificial intelligence).  

The UAE took a batch of Pfizer vaccine too, starting to use this on 23rd December. As stated by Amer Sharif, head of the Covid-19 Command & Control Centre in Dubai, the UAE aimed to be the first country in the world to achieve 100% vaccination of eligible adults. According to Bloomberg (7th February), it was well on the way to achieving this, reaching 4.2 million in six weeks. 

However, as seen in some other small countries, such as Gibraltar (which shot up to the highest mortality in the world, now 2583 per million), the death rate surged shortly after mass vaccination began. In the case of UAE, this was blamed on the reopening of the country to international travel in November, and mutant strains. 

Mortality rose sharply in January, when almost all elderly had been vaccinated. On 10th February a new high of 18 deaths from the coronavirus was recorded. Considerably more people are dying that in the first wave last spring.  

The cumulative toll of 1027 deaths (103 per million) in the UAE, however, is much lower than in Europe and North America, A major factor in the lower Covid mortality in the predominantly Muslim Middle East is the young age profile. In Palestine the average is 20, compared with 30 in Israel. This differential could explain the worse Israeli death toll, but a new pattern has appeared since vaccination. 

Israel started vaccinating on 19th December. As highlighted by former New York Times journalist Alex Berenson, while Covid mortality escalated among Israelis throughout January, in Palestine it declined steeply after a surge in December.  Now for the punch line: Palestine had no vaccine. 

Deaths in Israel are now falling, which mainstream media attribute to the vaccine, although there is a global trend of the virus becoming less deadly (having taken the low-hanging fruit). But why did mortality increase in the weeks following mass vaccination? As must always be emphasised, correlation is not causation. However, the numbers suggests that individual risk increased for a short time period after the jab. 

June Raine, chief of the UK medicines regulator MHRA, acknowledged that ‘a week or two’ is needed to build up immunity after the first jab. Some people may become seriously ill after receiving the vaccine, due to a temporary depletion of lymphocytes (white blood cells). 

Irrespective of presumed cause, death shortly after vaccination should always be reported as a serious adverse event. The MHRA is reluctant to divulge vaccine-related mortality data. This is very concerning, because people across the world are effectively participating in an experimental trial. We will not know the long-term safety of these vaccines for at least two years. 

Evidence of the short-term hazard is contentious, but there is certainly signal above the noise of seasonal and variant noise. The rise in post-vaccine mortality in Gibraltar, the UAE and Israel is likely to amount to much larger numbers in countries such as the UK and USA. Tory grandee David David queried the ten thousand deaths of people in their 80s in the week commencing 29th January, when this age group had mostly been vaccinated.  On 31st January the Israeli government promised to send 5000 doses of Covid vaccine to Palestine. How will the 2.7 million on the West Bank and 1.8 million in Gaza react? In these territories there is not only cultural concern about vaccines, but also deep distrust of anything coming from the Israelis. Meanwhile, the virus continues to recede in Palestine, no thanks to the global needle. 

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