MUSCAT (ONA) — Dr Ahmed Mohammed al-Sa’eedi, Minister of Health has launched the National Campaign for Immunisation against COVID-19 under the theme (Immunisation is prevention). The campaign was held at A’Seeb Specialised Polyclinic today in the presence of the undersecretaries, as well as healthcare workers. The Health Minister was the first person to be vaccinated in the launching of the National Campaign followed by the Representative of World Health Organisation (WHO) in Oman Dr John Jabbour, as well as healthcare workers and members of the community.

The Minister of Health, said that the first batch of the vaccine (15,600 doses) arrived on December 24, and around (28,000 doses) are expected to arrive early January. Other shipments will be received gradually. As for this vaccine, two doses are required, to be administered 21 days apart, therefore, the first batch will be administered to (7,500) persons. The Minister of Health affirmed that the vaccine has been distributed to all governorates of the Sultanate and it will be rolled out as per the priorities established by the technical team. Further, the Minister of Health, Member of the Supreme Committee tasked with tackling developments resulting from coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic extended thanks and gratitude to His Majesty Sultan Haitham Bin Tarik for his generous support for the immunisation programme against COVID-19.

In the launching ceremony, Dr Mohammed al-Hosani, MOH’s Undersecretary for Health Affairs confirmed a working group specialised in vaccines field, and formed by a ministerial decision, has selected the vaccines in accordance with systematic scientific bases. The Health Affairs Undersecretary highlighted the efforts of the Ministry in providing COVID-19 vaccine as cooperation was maintained with several vaccine-manufacturing companies and the Sultanate has joined the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI). He explained that the supply of the vaccine will be in batches, already started at the end of last week and will continue until the end of coming year (2021) due to vaccines’ manufacturing conditions and global demand.  Al-Hosani added that prior to the provision of the vaccine, the population group that must be vaccinated was approved and priority groups for immunisation were identified to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Dr John Jabbour, WHO Representative in the Sultanate, who was the second one to take the vaccine, pointed out that taking the vaccine after the Health Minister is a confirmation on the safety of the vaccine.

Vaccination will be in two stages. The technical team identified the target groups for taking the vaccine in the first phase. The target groups in community include: the elderly of 65 years of age and above with diabetes, people with kidney failure and who are on dialysis, and those with chronic lung diseases namely the Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Syndrome (COPD), asthma (with the severity of the disease varies between medium and high), Interstitial lung disease (ILD). As for the target groups of health care workers include the ICU staff, staff working in Covid-19 wards, employees who have any of the following: diabetes, obesity (BMI more than or equal to 40), being on dialysis, chronic lung disease as detailed in the target groups in community. Given the urgent need for COVID-19 vaccines, unprecedented financial investments and scientific collaborations, some of the steps in the research and development process have been conducted simultaneously while still maintaining strict clinical and safety standards.

On the vaccine side effects, Dr Saif al-Abri, Director General of Disease Control and Surveillance clarified that symptoms associated with taking the vaccine range from local pain, redness and swelling at injection site to fever, which are the same symptoms associated with taking any other vaccines. Some other side effects have been recorded in low proportions, such as sore throat, nausea, joint pain and general fatigue, which indicate that the body’s immune system is beginning to respond to the vaccine. He affirmed that no serious side effects were recorded during the clinical trial phase.

Dr Saif also affirmed that getting the vaccine would not cancel the need of other preventive measures. It will be complementary to other preventive measures as vaccine will not target all of the population at once; hence, there will be always a high-risk people around us who could get the infection unless we comply with preventive measures. In addition, the vaccine will mitigate disease complications while preventive measures will continue to reduce the potential of infection transmission to the person. With regard to the vaccination process, Dr Saif pointed out that a person should show a quick response and go to the health institution as soon as he/she is notified to be among the vaccine target group along with committing to take the second dose of the vaccine 21 days after the first dose, in order to obtain the desired efficacy, as a single dose of the vaccine is considered ineffective. Further, the effect of the vaccine begins 7 days after the second dose is taken. Before that period, the person is still susceptible to infection and should go to the health institution for evaluation if any symptoms of the disease appear.

The Director General of Disease Control and Surveillance confirmed the necessity of adhering to other preventive measures, such as hand washing, wearing mask and physical distancing after taking the vaccine doses, as taking the vaccine will not cancel the need for these measures. In addition, people should pay no attention to rumors and take information about the vaccine from reliable official sources.

The Ministry of Health affirmed that the vaccine will not be mandatory. Taking the vaccine will be based on the conviction of individuals in the community about the importance of taking the vaccine that will be supported by awareness and promotion of a sense of responsibility and national duty. With the continuing Covid-19 pandemic and the challenges it has imposed, the non-pharmacological interventions, such as social distancing and closures of activities and border crossing outlets have become a major challenge for governments and individuals. Hence, solutions have been limited to strengthening preventive measures among community members, institutions and public places (e.g. commitment to physical distancing, wearing mask, hand washing), as well as the provision of effective vaccine to prevent Covid-19.

As part of Oman’s efforts to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, one of its top priorities was to ensure that Oman receives its share of the Covid-19 vaccine through following deliberate steps. Such steps are represented in the formation of a working group headed MOH’s Undersecretary of Health Affairs, with the membership of Director General of Disease Control and Surveillance, the Director General of Medical Supplies, Director General of Primary Health Care, and the Director General of Pharmaceutical Affairs and Drug Control, in addition to the Director of Communicable Diseases of the DGDCS.

The Ministerial Decision No.120/2020 stipulated that the working group specializes in following up global developments in the field of manufacturing and production of coronavirus vaccine, and developing mechanisms to obtain the appropriate vaccine in coordination with and following-up the GAVI, the World Health Organisation (WHO), and the specialized companies. Experts and specialists may be involved in the work of the team, provided that the team leader submits a report on the recommendations that he concludes in relation to selecting the appropriate vaccine from among the vaccines produced globally.

Dr Saif pointed out that in order to ensure that Oman receives the required quantities, several negotiating channels have been initiated with the GAVI, and others through direct negotiations with several manufacturers of the Covid-19 vaccine. In addition, priority groups for immunisation were identified based on the recommendations of international organisations, considering some local studies that highlighted the prevalence of the disease in Oman and the most vulnerable groups to the disease. Efforts were further made in preparing the national distribution and vaccination plan for the Covid-19 vaccine, as well as developing the guide for the implementation of the national immunization campaign against Covid-19, and emphasising the readiness of institutions and individuals to receive and distribute the vaccine to the target groups on the specified time.

Prior to receiving the vaccine, several steps were taken, such as conducting a survey to assess community awareness, attitudes and practices related to COVID-19 vaccine in Oman. In addition, an electronic mechanism through Tarrasud+ and Al Shifa programs was developed to follow up the process of administering the vaccine and follow up the people receiving it afterwards in all the specified public and private health institutions. E-notification system was prepared to report any post-vaccination side effects if experienced.

Several meetings were held at various levels, including a meeting of Dr Ahmed al Sa’eedi, Minister of Health with the directors general of all governorates to review the relevant preparations and the operational plan, in addition to meeting with the directors of the communicable diseases control and immunization supervisors of the governorates. Moreover, training workshops for all partners involved in the implementation process and following-up the progress of all plans were conducted. Further, an intensive media plan was prepared by COVID-19 media team in order to raise the level of public awareness on the vaccine and respond to misinformation and rumors.

The DGPADC has evaluated the efficacy and safety studies submitted by the Pfizer/ BioNTech Company upon its receipt on November 26, 2020. It has reached an outcome that the known and potential benefits of the vaccine exceeded the expected risks and after the vaccine has been approved by the health authorities in the United Kingdom, Canada and U.S. Food and Drug Administration.