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Saudi Arabia kicks off coronavirus vaccination campaign

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This picture taken on December 17, 2020 shows Saudi Arabia’s Health Minister Tawfiq al-Rabiah waiting to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine (Tozinameran) in the capital Riyadh, as part of a vaccination campaign by the Saudi health ministry. (Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP)

Saudi Arabia kicked off a three-phase Covid-19 vaccination programme Thursday, with the health minister among those inoculated after the first shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine arrived in the kingdom.

Along with Health Minister Tawfiq al-Rabiah, a woman in a wheelchair and another man were among the first to be administered the vaccine at a centre in Riyadh, an AFP photographer reported.

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“This is the beginning of the end of the crisis,” Rabiah told reporters.

People aged over 65 as well as those with chronic ailments or at a high risk of infection will receive the vaccine in the first stage, and those aged over 50 in the second, the health ministry said this week.

Everyone else will be vaccinated in the third stage, the ministry said, without specifying the dates for each phase or how long the mass campaign would take.

The Gulf kingdom has a population of more than 34 million, according to official figures.

More than 100,000 people have registered so far through an online application called “Sehaty”, the ministry said, adding that the vaccine would be “free for all citizens and residents”.

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Last week, the kingdom approved the use of the vaccine developed by US pharmaceuticals giant Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, becoming the second Gulf country to do so after Bahrain.

Britain, Canada and the United States have also approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and have already launched mass inoculation campaigns. Neighbouring Jordan green-lighted the drug on Monday.

Saudi Arabia has so far recorded more than 360,000 novel coronavirus cases, including more than 6,000 deaths –- the highest among the Gulf Arab states. But the kingdom has also reported a high recovery rate.

The start of the first vaccination programmes comes with several European countries announcing new lockdowns amid spiralling infections, highlighting the long road to ending the pandemic which has killed more than 1.6 million people worldwide.

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