Afghanistan has received its first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines under the COVAX international vaccine-sharing program, world health and Afghan government officials say.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said on March 8 that the shipment of 468,000 doses is the start of what is expected to be nearly 3 million doses to eventually be provided for free to Afghanistan.
"The delivery is part of a first wave of arrivals that will continue in the coming weeks and months," said the WHO statement, which added that the shipment came from the AstraZeneca Serum Institute of India in Mumbai.
In addition to 468,000 vaccine doses, 470,000 syringes and 4,700 safety boxes were also delivered, it said.
Afghan health officials have said the COVAX program, which is aimed at improving access to the COVID-19 vaccine for developing countries, would provide vaccines to cover 20 percent of the country's 38 million population.
COVAX is a joint effort by the WHO and the Gavi alliance, a public-private program that coordinates the project. The program is designed to reduce the vaccine divide between wealthy and poorer countries.
It seeks to provide 2 billion doses of vaccines for underdeveloped countries by the end of 2021.
"The arrival of the first COVAX doses today is a major milestone," Gavi official Ricard Lacort said.
"Gavi looks forward to continuing our collaboration with the people of Afghanistan and partners to ensure the smooth and equitable distribution of vaccines to those most in need. It is going to be challenging, but if we all maintain momentum and keep working together, we will defeat this pandemic,” he added.
COVAX organizers said Afghanistan is the first country in the region to receive vaccines under the program.
Wahid Majroh, Afghanistan's acting health minister, said the COVAX doses will be provided to health-care workers, Afghan security force members, and journalists.
“The ministry appreciates the COVAX facility and the international donors for their continued support,” Majroh said in a statement.
“We must accelerate our efforts to ensure that all eligible Afghans are vaccinated and protected from COVID-19, as it is the most important step to put an end to this pandemic."
Afghanistan in late February began its COVID-19 vaccination campaign, initially inoculating security-force members, health workers, and journalists as the country battles to fight the coronavirus pandemic amid a sharp rise in extremist violence.
The war-wracked country last month received 500,000 doses of AstraZeneca's vaccine from India's Serum Institute, which is producing the vaccine for mid- and low-income countries.
Afghanistan is believed to have been hit hard by the pandemic over the past year, but limited testing and a weak health-care sector have restricted its ability to track the virus.
Officially, the country has recorded just 55,600 confirmed cases and about 2,430 deaths, but a Health Ministry survey in August 2020 estimated that up to 10 million people -- nearly one-third of the population -- might have been infected with the coronavirus.
Kabul and other urban centers across the country have been rocked by violence in recent weeks amid fraught peace talks between the government and the Taliban.
Decades of conflict have slowed past vaccine campaigns in Afghanistan, including an anti-polio campaign, with swaths of the country under the control of militants making access difficult for inoculation teams.
Taliban militants fighting the foreign-backed Afghan government have announced their backing for the vaccination campaign.