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Syria President Bashar Assad and wife catch COVID-19 as country battles pandemic amid a civil war

Assad and his regime's war crimes
Assad and his regime's war crimes 13:21

Damascus — Syrian President Bashar Assad and his wife Asma both have tested positive for the coronavirus, but a presidential spokesman said Monday that the couple remained in good health. They've caught the disease as Syria is poised to mark a decade of civil war, which has seen Assad castigated by the U.S. and many other Western nations and made it difficult to stave off a public health crisis. 

"After experiencing mild symptoms that resemble COVID-19, President al-Assad and First Lady Asma al-Assad took a PCR test, and the result showed that they are infected with the virus," the spokesman said in a statement carried by state-run media outlets. "They are in good health and their condition is stable."

The spokesman said the president and his wife would continue working during their "home quarantine period" of two to three weeks.

"President al-Assad and Mrs. Asma wish the safety and well-being of all Syrians and all peoples of the world from this virus, and they call on all Syrians to continue to follow precautions and preventive measures as much as possible," the spokesman said.

Syrian officials have confirmed only about 16,000 COVID-19 infections since the pandemic began a year ago, and there have been only about 1,000 deaths confirmed from the disease. There were long no reliable figures, however, for the small portion of the country still held by rebel groups, or the significant swath of northeast Syria controlled by Kurdish forces. Those regions, combined, have since reported about 700 fatalities.  

Shining a light on Syria's civil war 07:38

Medics and residents told CBS News in September that the real numbers in government-controlled Syria — most of the country — were likely much higher than those reflected by government data.

An official at one mortuary in Damascus told CBS News that he estimated at least 100 patients were dying of COVID-19 every day at that point in the capital alone.

In a study published in September, researchers from Imperial College London's COVID-19 Response Team, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the Syria team at the London School of Economics, Google, the European Institute of Peace and the Middle East Institute estimated that only 1.25% of the actual coronavirus deaths in Damascus were being counted.

Vaccination efforts have been slow in ramping up in Syria, too, with health care workers only recently having received some of the first doses.

The government gave approval for the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine to be used in the country near the end of February. The vaccine was developed in and is made by Russia, Syria's most valuable international ally, but it's unclear how many doses will be made available, or when.

In December, Syria signed up to receive vaccine doses through the World Health Organization-backed COVAX initiative, which aims to ensure fair distribution of vaccines to poorer countries. The initial goal is to provide enough doses to inoculate about 3% of the population, with the first deliveries expected this month.

Last month China said it would send 150,000 doses of one of its vaccines to Syria to help boost the inoculation efforts.

Syria's government is under heavy international financial sanctions as a result of the decade-long war there, but medicines and medical supplies are generally exempt. However, the sanctions have left Syria with little in the way of financial resources to secure the doses needed for a broad national inoculation program.

Sanctions were imposed on Syria to pressure the Assad regime over its human rights record and alleged use of chemical weapons.

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