As COVID-19 daily figures in Egypt show steady decline, the Cabinet has taken a bunch of decisions towards further reopening the country while adhering to cautionary measures. From a maximum 1774 daily cases of COVID-19 and 97 deaths last June, the daily figures now hover around 130 daily cases and less than 20 deaths.
The Cabinet decisions went into effect starting 21 September 2020 but, according to the Cabinet, may be revised if needs be. They include allowing funeral prayers in mosques with open courtyards; also allowing weddings in open spaces in hotels and touristic venues, at a maximum capacity of 300 persons. The same applies to meetings and conferences, but at a maximum of 150 persons or of 50 per cent of the capacity of the place.
Cultural fairs are also allowed in open spaces, and may begin with the Alexandria Book Fair, provided attendees are at 50 per cent of the capacity of the place, and that cautionary measures are observed.
In this context, Cabinet spokesperson Nader Saad said, it was decided to approve holding the fair “Ahlan bil-Madares (Welcome, Schools)”, an annual event that offers all back-to-school needs at affordable prices. The fair, which Egyptian families expectantly await every year, started 20 September.
Adult continuing education activities, as well as literacy classes may resume. Sports activities and sports venues that had remained closed, including swimming pools, may reopen while imposing cautionary regulations.
Health Minister Hala Zayed reviewed the current COVID-19 situation in Egypt. She said that the 21 quarantine hospitals in the country now have 14 per cent occupancy rate for inpatient beds, 47 per cent for ICU beds, and 13 per cent for ventilator beds. Dr Zayed reviewed the situation of PCR testing, citing their daily data.
The Minister highlighted the situation of the tourist sector, specifically in the tourist destinations of South Sinai, the Red Sea coast on the east, and the Mediterranean coast in the north. She said, citing official figures, that the hotels operating there were the ones approved basing on preparedness on all necessary cautionary measures, and that hotel personnel have been trained to apply cautionary regulations.
Egypt now requires incoming travellers to hand proof having undergone PCR test 72 hours prior to arrival, and that it proved they carried no virus. EgyptAir later announced that the 72 hour deadline was moved up to 96 hours for long-haul flights.
She referred to the guidelines agreed upon with the Ministry of Education concerning the cautionary measures to be implemented in schools once they open in mid-October. At the same time, she gave details of the electronic networking between the ministries of education and health to follow up on positive cases of COVID-19.
The Health Minister said Egypt was keen to secure COVID-19 vaccines, some 180 of which were being developed worldwide, according to the WHO. She said the target was to provide the public with three different vaccines. To that end, she said, Egypt has coordinated with GAVI, the vaccine global alliance, to place the country on the list to receive affordable discounted price vaccines.
Earlier this month, Dr Zayed had announced the initiation in Egypt of the 3rd phase of clinical trials on two coronavirus vaccines. The trials come within integral cooperation among Egypt, China, and the Abu Dhabi-based G42 Healthcare on research studies to come up with COVID-19 vaccines and, once found to be safe and effective, to start production. The Chinese partner, according to Dr Zayed, is “a leading Chinese company in the field of vaccine manufacturing”.
President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has stressed on Egypt’s keenness to be part of the global effort to find an adequate vaccine for COVID-19.
Targeting 45,000 persons from all over the world, Dr Zayed noted, the clinical trials come under the rubric “For the sake of humanity” and are carried out by the volunteers from four Arab countries: Emirates, Bahrain, Jordan, and Egypt. Participant volunteers receive two doses of vaccine, three weeks in between. They should then be monitored for one year.
So far, the trials were conducted on 35,000 persons outside Egypt. From Egypt, 6000 persons will be taking part in the trials.
Dr Zayed explained that the vaccine trials successfully passed the preclinical phase carried out on laboratory animals, as well as the first and second phases on increasing numbers of healthy volunteers to check for safety, effectiveness, and optimal dose of the drug. So far, she said, the results have shown promise.
The third phase, according to Dr Zayed, is the one in which Egyptians are taking part. She said that a national committee has been formed to supervise the clinical research. The committee is chaired by Dr Muhammad Hassany, Aide to the Health Minister; and includes members from the Health Ministry, the Egyptian Armed Forces Health Services, the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, the Ministry of Justice, and the Egyptian Drug Authority. She confirmed that Egypt has been managing the crisis of coronavirus according to the WHO standards and guidance from international organisations. She also stressed a production line at VACSERA, the Holding Company for Biological Products and Vaccine and the oldest manufacturer of vaccines in Africa and the Middle East, was standing in preparation to produce a COVID-19 vaccine once it is approved.
The Ministry of Health set up a website [www.covactrial.mohp.gov] for volunteers to register their personal and health data. They head to a centre where they are received by specialists who advise them about the details of the trials and all the hazards involved. If they agree, they sign a document to that effect.
Participants then undergo thorough medical examinations. Blood samples are taken to check their immune systems, and PCR tests are made to ensure there was no previous infection with COVID-19. After that, the participant may be given the first dose of the vaccine.
Hub for manufacturing vaccine
On 20 July 2020, Dr Zayed had received Chinese Ambassador to Cairo, Liao Liqiang, to discuss Egypt’s participation in international testing of potential coronavirus vaccine, in collaboration with China. Their talks included cooperation between the Ministry of Health’s VACSERA and a Chinese firm conducting tests to produce a vaccine, the objective being to manufacture this vaccine in Egypt once its safety and effectiveness were confirmed. It was agreed that Egypt would become a hub for the production of the vaccine in Africa.
The quality and capacity of the production lines at VACSERA were assessed, and preparations made to directly begin manufacturing the vaccine once it was ready. The official agreement is scheduled to be signed this September.
During his meeting with Dr Zayed, the Chinese Ambassador had commended Egypt’s management of the coronavirus crisis, and also expressed appreciation for the country’s support of China during hard times, not least by illuminating Egyptian monuments with the colours of the Chinese flag. He thanked Dr Zayed for her visit of solidarity to the People’s Republic of China last February. Two days earlier, Egypt had airlifted to China 10 tons of preventive medical utilities, as a token of support and goodwill. Mr Liqiang said China would never forget that act. Not only is Egypt investing effort into producing a coronavirus vaccine, but it is also participating in Solidarity, an international clinical trial to help find an effective treatment for COVID-19. Solidarity was launched by the WHO and partners, and involves enrolling patients in multiple countries.
Fears of second wave
Yet there are fears a second wave of COVID-19 might hit Egypt.
During a Cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly last month, Dr Zayed warned of a second wave. Even though numbers of daily cases had significantly dropped from their peak in June 2020, she said, a second wave might owe to the fake sense of security that induces people to feel the pandemic over and thus relax their commitment to cautionary measures. Mr Madbouly said that, with this in mind, the government cannot stress enough commitment to cautionary measures, including wearing face masks and applying social distancing. He stressed that those who fail to abide by the safety health measures decreed by the government would be penalised according to the law.
The Health Minister pointed out that a COVID-19 vaccine would not stop spread of the virus, but would reduce the chance of contracting it, thus reducing its impact.
On 14 September, Dr Zayed presented, during a Cabinet videoconference meeting, Egypt’s plan to deal with a possible second wave of COVID-19.
She said the plan hinged on four axes. The first concerns preparedness of the 320 public and central hospitals that handle COVID-19 cases, in addition to the fevers and respiratory disease hospitals. It also includes doubling the capacity for testing.
The second axis ensures a steady strategic supply of medication and utilities needed for COVID-19.
The third concerns the governance of the health system through 27 operations rooms to place patients and diminish waiting lines; also to ban entry into Egypt for anyone who has no proof of PCR-negative test.
As to the fourth axis, it is concerned with making available the necessary safe and effective vaccine.
Church follows suit
Ever since lockdown began in Egypt in March 2020, and easing started in late June, Egyptian Churches have been following the lead of the government in lockdown and reopening. The Coptic Church imposed closure of churches and all related activities on 21 March 2020. Holy Mass, prayer and worship, as well as Sunday School, meetings, and celebrations—including those of Holy Week and the Resurrection—all went online. July saw the start of a very cautious, gradual reopening.
The most recent reopening allowed resumption of church activities, services, and Sunday School. A statement which began with the Bible verse: “How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord” (Psalm 84: 1,2), announced that in Cairo and Alexandria, the parishes under the direct jurisdiction of Pope Tawadros, Church activities would resume at 50 per cent capacity. In other parishes, the statement explained, matters shall be managed by the respective metropolitans or bishops, each according to the health conditions in his parish. In all cases, the cautionary measures against COVID-19 should strictly apply.
23 September 2020