Morocco is gearing up for an ambitious COVID-19 vaccination program, aiming to vaccinate 80 percent of its adults in an operation starting this month.
On Tuesday, King Mohammed VI instructed the government to make the vaccine free, according to a Royal Palace statement.
Morocco plans to roll out China's Sinopharm vaccine in the coming weeks as soon as phase three trials are over, Prime Minister Saad Dine El Otmani told Reuters last month.
Morocco is battling a resurgence in virus infections, with the number of recorded deaths from the virus surpassing 6,000. The North African kingdom is pinning its hopes on two vaccine candidates, one developed by China's Sinopharm and the other by Britain's Oxford University and AstraZeneca.
The Sinopharm vaccine has been approved for emergency use in a few countries and the company is still conducting late-stage clinical trials in 10 countries. The AstraZeneca vaccine is still in advanced trials in countries including Britain and the U.S. and hasn't been approved yet.
Morocco's government seeks to vaccinate 80 percent of its adults - 25 million people - as soon as the vaccines are approved by domestic regulators. Priority will go to medical staff and other front-line workers, as well as the elderly.
Sinopharm vaccine, which was tested on 600 Moroccans as part of clinical trials this autumn, will be the first vaccine to be included in the program. Morocco has ordered 10 million doses of the vaccine.
The initial deliveries will come from China, but Morocco also plans to produce the vaccine locally, Abdelhakim Yahyan, a senior official at the Ministry of Health, told the state-owned news agency MAP.
Health Minister Khalid Ait Taleb said Morocco is seeking vaccines from several sources because COVID vaccines are a scarce commodity and a single manufacturer's production capacity is too limited to meet the needs of the whole world.
In the Moroccan trial of the Sinopharm vaccine, carried out in Casablanca and the capital Rabat from August through November, healthy volunteers received two separate doses of the vaccine.
In the advanced trial, volunteers either received the vaccine or a placebo. According to the health minister, early results have proven the vaccine to be "safe and effective" with no severe side effects reported.
Prime Minister Saad-Eddine El Othmani has sought to reassure the vaccine-hesitant about the robustness of the country's regulatory process for vaccine approval, saying that no corners have been cut in making sure the Chinese vaccine is safe to administer.
Morocco's mass immunization operation will include 2,888 vaccination stations and the deployment of mobile units to vaccinate people at factories, offices, campuses, and prisons. The health ministry said it would mobilize over 12,000 health professionals as well as the military to ensure rapid distribution.
No exact date has been set for the rollout, but the health minister said, "we are doing our best to get it started in mid-December."
Separately, Morocco is expected to be among 92 low- and middle-income countries supported by Covax, an international effort to ensure that vaccine supplies reach developing countries, if the group meets its funding targets, according to the WHO.
(With input from agencies)