Health Minister Anahit Avanesyan

COVID-19 Vaccination Campaign Begins in Armenia Amid Rise in Cases

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YEREVAN – Several hundred Armenians have already been inoculated against the COVID-19 virus as the country’s public health officials launch the first stage of its vaccination strategy. According to Health Minister Anahit Avanesyan, the first vaccination campaigns were expected to start in early February but were delayed by several weeks due to gaps in the global supply chain.

Armenia is a self-funding participant in the World Health Organization’s Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) initiative designed to provide equitable access for developing countries. Last year, Armenian authorities signed a $6 million contract with COVAX to supply at least 600,000 doses of the vaccine. However the COVAX system doesn’t allow participating countries to select their vaccine of choice, instead supplying doses as they become available.

Armenia initially expressed interest in purchasing the vaccine developed by the American pharmaceutical giant Moderna, which is co-founded by Armenian entrepreneur and philanthropist Noubar Afeyan. However, with most of Moderna’s early doses already earmarked for US consumption, the Armenian government has instead approved the Russian-produced Sputnik V and the British-designed AstraZeneca for distribution. Both these candidates require a two-step inoculation process. Minister Avanesyan explained that Armenia subjects vaccine candidates to a three-step testing process before approving them for public use.

Of the 200 candidates who were injected with the initial testing dose for the Sputnik V vaccine, none experienced serious side effects, though several reported higher temperatures for up to two days after the inoculation. Vaccination will prioritize healthcare workers, the elderly, and other vulnerable demographics. Educators, civil servants, rescue workers, law enforcement and military personnel will be the target of the second phase before the vaccine will be made available to the general public. Vaccinations will be free for government workers and low income individuals.

Armenian public health authorities say that the country currently has enough doses to inoculate at least 15 percent of Armenia’s population by the end of 2021, but Avanesyan announced last week that the government was in negotiations with Russia to acquire a large shipment of the Sputnik V vaccine in order to ramp up the process.

The vaccination campaign launches amid a renewed rise in new COVID-19 cases being recorded in the country, which some public health experts warn might be the beginnings of a third wave of the pandemic.

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Armenia had been experiencing a steady decline in new infection rates in the first months of 2021 after registering new daily cases in the thousands at the peak of last year’s bloody war with Azerbaijan. Despite concerns over the low testing rates, this data has also been backed up by a corresponding drop in fatalities. Most hospitals which had been converted into special disease control centers have since been returned to their original functions. Some experts have speculated that these figures may be evidence that Armenia has already attained herd immunity. While Armenia has officially registered 178,702 total cases of COVID-19 infections across the country, the real figure is estimated to be at least three or four times higher, with the virus’ spread being accelerated by the movement of troops, refugees and aid workers during last year’s 44-day war, with most carriers likely being asymptomatic.

Still, despite averaging around 130 new cases per day throughout January and February, new infection rates have crept back up in March, now averaging 407 daily cases. The Health Minister has already warned on March 11 that hospital beds are quickly filling up despite some 8 facilities being reconverted to help with the influx of patients. New beds are also being set up to meet the demand but “hospital space is not infinite,” the minister cautioned.

Around one thousand COVID-19 patients are suffering conditions severe enough to require hospitalization, while most of the 8190 active cases remain in self-isolation. Ten people have succumbed to complications from the virus on Monday, bringing the total number of fatalities to 3,265.

Despite this upswing in cases, authorities have denied rumors that the country would be going back into complete lockdown. Schools, businesses, and restaurants will remain open. Instead, they have urged citizens to go back to stricter observation of social distancing measures: to wear masks in public, remain 2 meters apart, and wash hands regularly. The Armenian police has also pledged to more actively enforce compliance with these rules, adding that it has ceased issuing fines in the months following the war as many grieved losses of family and friends.

Still, public health officials may face an uphill battle in the race to provide ubiquitous vaccination before mutated versions of the virus make their appearance in the country. Authorities insist that vaccination will remain voluntary, but the persistence of misinformation about the vaccine, as well as the virus itself has kept many Armenians wary about the prospects of vaccination. Tamara, a wine event planner in Yerevan, told the Mirror-Spectator that due to some childhood allergies, she is concerned over allegations that patients may have died from the vaccine.

For others, their decision to get inoculated will depend on which vaccine is available. The Russian-developed Sputnik V vaccine initially caused concern in Armenia due to its fast-tracked testing and approval process, which some critics claimed was motivated primarily by a desire to be the first to market rather than public health. However, despite mixed results in peer-reviewed studies, it has proven to be mostly safe for consumption.

Syuzana, who works in a tech company in Yerevan explained to the Mirror-Spectator that she wasn’t so much concerned about vaccination as she was about the local Armenian laboratories’ ability to safely provide it. “I don’t know if they have the right facilities to store it at temperature, I don’t trust their sanitary practices” she said, adding that she’s always had her son vaccinated in the United States, which she plans on repeating this time around.

For Dr. Kim Hekimian, Associate Director of Education for the Program for Global and Population Health at the Vagelos College of Physicians, this vaccine hesitancy is concerning. She points to a previous public health initiative to provide the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine to counter cervical cancer, which is a leading cause of death among Armenian women. The campaign was met with mixed success given that a sustained disinformation campaign convinced many would-be recipients that the vaccine would cause infertility.

“The fact that Armenia has registered so many positive cases will help reduce the virulence and transmission for a while, but the country may be susceptible to new infection variances,” Hekimian warned, “We don’t know yet.”

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