Saudi Arabia begins inoculating people with Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines

RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia began inoculating people in the kingdom with a COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday, becoming the first Arab country to roll out the Pfizer-BioNTech jab.

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Saudi Arabia received two shipments of the vaccine on Wednesday.

Earlier this week, health authorities asked citizens and residents to register to receive the vaccine, which they said would be given free to all in the country.

The kingdom has reported around 360,000 cases coronavirus case with 6,080 deaths since the start of the pandemic. Although it began lifting restrictions several months ago, the country has so far avoided a new wave of infections.

Health Minister Tawfiq al-Rabiah was one of the first people to receive the vaccine, rolling up his sleeve to receive the inoculation in front of the media.

“Today marks the start of relief to this crisis,” Rabiah told reporters at a vaccination center with more than 550 inoculation stations in Riyadh.

“For the past nine months, I anxiously monitored the number of registered cases,” he said. “But today, I will happily monitor the numbers of those getting vaccinated.”

Vaccination stations will be set up throughout the kingdom, he said.

Saudi Arabia earlier this week asked citizens and residents to sign up for its vaccination program. The first phase will include people most exposed to the disease. The second and third stages will target those over 50 before the vaccine is made available to the wider public.

Citizens and foreign residents lined up to receive the vaccine on Thursday morning, as part of the phase 1 roll-out which includes those most exposed and vulnerable to the disease.

Reporting by Reuters TV News and Dubai newsroom; writing by Raya Jalabi; editing by Alistair Bell, Larry King