DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The United Arab Emirates is on its way to having half of its population vaccinated against the coronavirus before a deadline it set for itself at the end of March, according to the country's health authorities.
The small desert sheikhdom of 10 million began deploying its vaccination campaign for the public toward the end of last year, after making China's Sinopharm vaccine available to frontline health workers and government officials from September. And in terms of vaccination rates, the UAE's national program is now the second highest in the world after Israel.
More than 1.8 million people have already received the Sinopharm vaccine, which is available for free to all citizens and residents. That's more than quadruple the per capita vaccination rate in the U.S. And the U.S. and German-developed Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is being rolled out in Dubai, currently in its first phase which is reserved for people over the age of 60, those with pre-existing health conditions, and frontline workers.
Both vaccines require two jabs spaced apart by 28 days, and 28 days after receiving the second shot, patients are no longer required to quarantine, but will still have to wear masks and practice social distancing, the country's National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority has said
And while taking the vaccine is optional, NCEMA says, it's strongly encouraged. Government employees in Abu Dhabi who choose not to take one of the vaccines will be required to take a PCR test every two weeks.
"We're very pleased with the progress we've made," Omar Ghobash, the UAE's assistant minister for culture and public diplomacy, told CNBC's Hadley Gamble on Sunday. "Obviously there are people who are still getting sick, and unfortunately passing away, but overall we think that we've managed to find the balance between health and safety on the one hand and economic viability on the other hand."
Sinopharm's developers say its vaccine is 86% effective while the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was found to have 95% effectiveness, though some medical professionals have expressed skepticism over the Chinese-made vaccine due to the lack of published data surrounding its development and trials. In November, UAE leaders including Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum tweeted images of themselves getting the Sinopharm shot.
Cases have soared in the Gulf country within a less than three-week period since late December as tourists flocked to Dubai's fully open beaches, restaurants and shopping malls. Despite visitors requiring a negative PCR test result before boarding or upon arrival, many suspect that a more transmissible strain of the virus first identified in the U.K. is at least in part to blame, given the high volume of British tourists in the emirate for the holiday season.
The jump in cases — now averaging more than 3,000 per day compared to around 1,000 per day at the end of December — led the U.K. to remove the UAE from its "safe travel corridor," even as U.K. travelers are barred from many countries over fear of the new virus strain. The UAE had successfully kept its case count below 2,000 per day for the entirety of 2020.
The UAE has registered 256,732 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 751 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Sunday saw a record high daily case count of 3,453.
Still, it appears that for now at least, the party city and regional commercial capital of Dubai will push on with its vaccine campaign while keeping its tourism-dependent economy open.
Neighboring oil-rich capital Abu Dhabi, meanwhile, has been much more conservative, requiring a series of negative PCR test results over the span of several days for anyone who wants to enter the emirate — even from other emirates in the country.
As for Dubai, mask wearing remains required in all public venues, excluding activities like eating or engaging in strenuous exercise, and authorities remind residents to socially distance. The emirate's openness, which increased gradually from the summer, had followed a period of one of the strictest lockdowns in the world in March and April.
By New Year, Dubai's government was allowing residents to hold gatherings inside their homes of up to 30 people. Hotels once nearly entirely empty are seeing upward of 70% occupancy rates as tourists escape their own countries for a sense of normality and warm weather.
"They are balancing personal responsibility with an economy that needs to go forward," Ghobash said of the country.
"Vaccinating the largest possible percentage of society" is the country's aim, the NCEMA tweeted earlier this month, in order to "access the acquired immunity resulting from vaccination, which will help reduce the number of cases and control the disease."