Syria said Thursday it had received a batch of coronavirus vaccines from a “friendly country,” without specifying where the shots had come from.
Health Minister Hassan Ghabash said that healthcare workers will begin receiving inoculations next week, Reuters reported, citing the state news agency SANA.
The development came after media reports in Israel and abroad claimed that Jerusalem had agreed to fund the purchase of an unknown quantity of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine for Syria, as part of a deal for the return of an Israeli woman who was held by Damascus after she crossed the border at the start of February.
The woman arrived in Israel on Friday via Moscow and was debriefed by the Shin Bet security agency.
Israel and Syria are officially in a state of war. Though they maintain a ceasefire along their shared border, Israel has said Iran is attempting to gain a foothold along the Syrian frontier. It has carried out hundreds of airstrikes inside Syria which it says are aimed at preventing Iranian entrenchment in the country and the transfer of advanced weapons to regional, anti-Israel, militias.
According to a report in the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat on Saturday, Israel is funding the purchase of Sputnik V doses for Damascus as part of the prisoner exchange deal with the Assad regime. Some foreign reports have said the purchase was to the tune of several million dollars.
Reports of the existence of an unpublished part of the deal circulated widely in Israeli media, but the details were barred from publication by the military censor. Knesset member Ahmad Tibi first hinted that it related to vaccination doses; MKs are not bound by the censor.
Asharq Al-Awsat reported Saturday that “informed sources” in Israel confirmed the existence of the “secret clause.”
The Assad regime, for its part, denied the report, saying in a statement released by the SANA news agency Saturday that the publication of such claims was part of an “attempt to paint Israel as a humane country.”
The release of the young woman was secured via Moscow’s mediation after over a week of diplomatic wrangling, and she landed at Ben Gurion International Airport on a flight from Russia in the early hours of Friday morning last week.
Israel released a security prisoner of Syrian nationality and two shepherds to get the woman freed.
Some media reports have indicated that Syria has been in talks with Russia and China to receive those countries’ vaccines but no agreements have been announced yet. Earlier this month China said it would send 150,000 doses of its home-produced vaccine to aid the country.
Though Syria is under international financial sanctions, medicines are generally exempt, Reuters reported. However, the sanctions have left Syria with little financial resources to negotiate deals for a national inoculation program. Sanctions were imposed on Syria to pressure the regime over its human rights record.
Earlier this week Syria approved the Russian Sputnik vaccine for use in the country. In December, Syria signed up for the World Health Organization’s Covax project, which aims to help poorer countries obtain vaccines.
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, there have been 15,343 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Syria and 1,008 people have died of the disease.