Morocco has received 2 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, becoming the first African country to acquire a large enough shipment to begin a nationwide immunization program. The countrywide roll-out began on January 29, with Morocco’s King, Mohammed VI, the first to receive the vaccine the previous day.

The AstraZeneca vaccine, which was developed in collaboration with Oxford University, will be administered at some 3,000 locations across Morocco. Mobile units will deliver it to the country’s more remote areas, as well as to offices, campuses, prisons, factories, and other densely populated locations. According to the country’s health ministry, 12,000 health professionals will be involved in the effort alongside the military, which was deployed in early December. The government aims to vaccinate 25 million people within three months, including foreign nationals who are officially residents in Morocco.

With the 2 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, Morocco also received half a million doses of the Chinese manufactured Sinopharm vaccine. Both come with their pros and cons. The AstraZeneca vaccine requires two doses, whereas the Sinopharm vaccine requires only one. However, unlike other vaccines, the AstraZeneca vaccine does not require ultra-cold storage, making it easier to distribute in hot countries and remote locations.

Morocco’s health ministry specified that the nationwide inoculation program, which is free at the point of use, will focus primarily on those with the highest risk level such as health workers, teachers, and the elderly, as well as those in areas with higher levels of infection.

The government in Rabat has ordered some 66 million doses of Covid-19 vaccinations, including 25 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and a further 41 million of the Sinopharm vaccine. Health Minister Khalid Ait Taleb told the media that Morocco is seeking vaccines from multiple sources due to their scarcity from any one particular manufacturer. The policy is intended as a safeguard against Morocco’s being undersold.

To date, Morocco has recorded around 470,000 cases of Covid-19 and over 8,200 deaths.

To date, Morocco has recorded around 470,000 cases of Covid-19 and over 8,200 deaths. The country has also begun to report instances of the more contagious (and potentially more deadly) British strain of the virus.

The AstraZeneca vaccine was imported from India, the world’s largest manufacturer of Covid-19 inoculations, which began distributing to mid-and-lower-income countries in late January. This somewhat bucks the trend of recent months, as the vast majority of vaccine supplies have gone to wealthier nations. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO, described unequal access to Covid-19 vaccines as a “catastrophic moral failure.” Morocco is among the 92 countries eligible for support from COVAX, an international effort to ensure that Covid-19 vaccines reach developing countries, which forms one of three pillars of the World Health Organization’s Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator program (ACT).

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While the launch of Morocco’s vaccine roll-out is undoubtedly good news, there have been some severe hiccups in getting to this point. The principal set-back has been the delay in the start of the program. Some seven weeks have now passed since Health Minister Taleb said that “we are doing our best to get [the vaccination program] started in mid-December,” which was later refined into a pledge to begin the program by the end of 2020. Prime Minister Saad-Eddine El Othmani blamed the global market for the delay and pointed, with no small degree of justification, to the fact that most of the vaccines had been earmarked for the world’s richest nations.

Whatever the reasons, at a time when cases are rising, these four lost weeks are likely to have been crucial in preventing further infections and deaths. Morocco is currently in the midst of a partial lockdown, with a 9:00 pm curfew and a large number of restaurants, bars, and shops closed. While the country has fared much better in suppressing the virus than many European nations, officials in Morocco are well aware that any serious surge, of the kind many of its neighbors across the Mediterranean are facing, could overwhelm the modest national healthcare system on which the vast majority of citizens rely.

The International Monetary Fund has projected that Morocco’s economy contracted by 7.2 percent in 2020.

Meanwhile, the curfew and other restrictions continue to exert significant strain on the Moroccan economy. The International Monetary Fund has projected that Morocco’s economy contracted by 7.2 percent in 2020, a year replete with repeated full lockdowns, curfews, and business closures.

Another drawback the state must contend with in fighting Covid-19 is the number of Moroccans who are reluctant to be vaccinated, believing the inoculations to be unsafe or ineffective. A Lancet study found that Moroccans have among the lowest levels of trust in vaccines in the world. The survey revealed that only 15.8 percent of Moroccans strongly agree with the statement that vaccines are important, with a mere 10.3 percent expressing strong agreement with the proposition that immunization programs are effective. These findings ring true when speaking to Moroccans today – from Tangier, to Casablanca, to Rabat, to Marrakech, one encounters a high degree of skepticism about the Covid-19 vaccines.

Much of the skepticism around the Covid-19 vaccines centers on the scale of testing. The World Health Organization has declared that individual governments may make their own decisions about vaccinating their citizens but has advised that new vaccines be tested in tens of thousands of trial participants in order to be sure that they do not have harmful side-effects. The Sinopharm vaccine was tested on 600 people in Morocco between August and November 2020, and some among the public point to this as evidence that the vaccine was not properly vetted.

Prime Minister El Otmani has struck a reassuring tone, however, stating that no corners have been cut in the vetting of the Chinese vaccine; and, according to Health Minister Taleb, the results of testing have found the Sinopharm vaccine to be “safe and effective” with no severe negative side-effects reported. Despite this, large numbers of Moroccans on social media asserted that they would refuse to take the vaccine if and when it is available to the wider public.

The government has drafted legislation – not yet ratified – stating that Moroccans will indeed be obliged by law to receive the vaccine.

In an attempt to assuage such concerns, the Moroccan government has said that the vaccine will not be compulsory for citizens, a move which might cause significant problems down the line if too many Moroccans opt out. Yet, perhaps fearing this outcome, the government has drafted legislation – not yet ratified – stating that Moroccans will indeed be obliged by law to receive the vaccine. Article 6 of the bill states that anyone who refuses to be vaccinated or who assists another in avoiding vaccination shall receive one to three months in jail and a fine of between 2,000 and 5,000 dirhams (US$220 – $550). Article 7 proposes even stricter measures, with jail sentences of three months to one year and a fine of between 5,000 and 20,000 dirhams (US$550 – $2,200) for publicly opposing the vaccine program by any means, including organizing protests, posting on social media, or hanging posters in public places.

Some in Morocco also have misgivings about the AstraZeneca vaccine. While the Sinopharm vaccine uses an already dead virus, similar to how polio vaccines work, the AstraZeneca vaccine employs newer technology that targets the Covid-19 spike protein. This more modern form of inoculation has been subjected to less testing and some experts therefore recommend caution in using it before more research is done. While little or no credible evidence exists that suggests either vaccine represents a danger to those who take it, widespread misinformation in Morocco and around the world seriously hinders the fight against Covid-19.

Like the rest of the developing world, Morocco still faces an uphill struggle in combating the spread of Covid-19. Nevertheless, the new nationwide vaccination program represents an enormous step forward, which is set to save thousands of lives and give millions of people hope of a return to something resembling life as normal.