The United Arab Emirates' commercial capital Dubai is making the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine available to its residents for free as of Wednesday, its government has announced. The news comes after the UAE began offering the Chinese-developed Sinopharm vaccine earlier this month.
The emirate's first batch of the Pfizer vaccines, which were found to be 95% effective in late-stage clinical trials, landed at Dubai International Airport late Tuesday night from Brussels.
An official Covid-19 vaccination campaign is now underway in the Middle Eastern country, and that campaign "will see the Dubai Health Authority providing the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccination, which has recently been approved for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and registered by the UAE Ministry of Health and Prevention," the Dubai Media Office said in a statement.
The first phase of the rollout will see four main groups targeted, with the first group including Emiratis and residents aged 60 and older, people with chronic health conditions, and the disabled.
The second group is frontline health workers, the third is other essential workers and the fourth is members of the general public who want to be vaccinated. The shots will be available at six Dubai Health Authority facilities and by appointment.
"Emirates is proud to be transporting the first batch of Pfizer vaccines for Covid-19 into the UAE for the Dubai Health Authority … it has been our honour to transport these vaccines free of charge on our flight," Emirates Airline and Group CEO Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum said in a statement.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, developed by the American and German pharmaceutical giants, was authorized for use and began its rollout in the U.K. and U.S. earlier this month, and was authorized by the EU's medical regulator this week.
The UAE has registered 195,878 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 642 deaths as of Wednesday, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
The UAE underwent one of the world's strictest lockdowns in March and April, followed by a gradual reopening that saw Dubai become one of the first destinations to reopen its doors to international tourists in July. Economically, the pandemic hit the country — especially tourism and transport-dependent Dubai — hard, and S&P predicted in October that the emirate's economy would shrink 11% this year.
But the emirate is now fully back open for business, with restaurants and beach bars back to life and new government initiatives launched to attract tourists and remote workers.
The UAE began offering the Chinese-developed Sinopharm vaccine to residents free of charge earlier this month after authorizing its emergency use for frontline workers in September and declaring it to be 86% effective based on "interim analysis" conducted by Sinopharm's China National Biotec Group (CNBG). The Gulf state of 10 million began Phase 3 human trials of the experimental vaccine in July, one of 10 countries hosting trials for it.
The Sinopharm vaccine is made using dead or weakened coronavirus, a common method used for decades of vaccine development including for the smallpox, flu and polio shots. But immunologists outside the country expressed concern at how little information was made publicly available by the manufacturer about its trials and results.
The UAE Health Ministry's announcement about the Sinopharm vaccine's effectiveness in early December did not elaborate on parameters of the trials such as how many patients were given the vaccine dosage versus placebos, and did not mention any side effects experienced by patients, among other details. Sinopharm did not respond to a CNBC request for comment.
Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum in early November reported that he received the Chinese trial vaccine, tweeting an image of himself being vaccinated and praising the work of the medical workers behind the effort.
Liliana Martinez, an American 29-year-old security manager living in Dubai, got the Sinopharm vaccine over the weekend.
"The process went really smoothly… I felt very minimal to no side effects from the vaccine," Martinez told CNBC. She described long lines of people waiting in their cars to get the jab at a local Dubai field hospital, and a multi-step process with several health and personal information checks along the way, but said that overall the process was well-organized. She was told she would receive a text message telling her when to return for a second dose.
On the evening following her vaccination, "I had a bit of soreness in my arm and since then I've felt a bit stiff and had a very small sore throat, almost not noticeable," Martinez said. "Overall I'm really glad I got it. I just heard the news that the Pfizer vaccine will also be available for free so I think it's great that the UAE population will have options."