Vaccine czar eyes jabs by February, but Filipinos may need to endure pandemic until 2023

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 11) — The first batch of coronavirus vaccines is set to arrive in the Philippines next month, but lives will not yet return to pre-pandemic times for at least two years, an official said on Monday. 

Vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr. said during a Senate inquiry that the shipment carrying 50,000 doses will be delivered on February 20. He refused to name which brand of vaccine will finally reach the country, but said it's either from Sinovac, Novavax, or AstraZeneca.

The Philippines recently secured 25 million doses from China's Sinovac, 30 million doses from US drugmaker Novavax, and six million doses from UK-based AstraZeneca through a tripartite agreement with the private sector. Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque earlier said the initial 50,000 doses from Sinovac will arrive next month.

Galvez was pressed by Senator Panfilo Lacson when the vaccination program will be carried out.

"Para naman umasa 'yung mga kababayan natin na sa February 28 or sa March 1 mababakunahan sila, pwede ba i-share mo sa amin kailan yung unang bakuna sa tantya mo?" he asked during the Senate Committee of the Whole's hearing into the government's vaccine plan.

[Translation: So the public can be excited to know if they can be vaccinated by February 28 or March 1. Share when the first vaccination will be carried out based on your estimate.]

Galvez replied it may happen in the "third or fourth week of February," hopeful that at least two million Filipinos will be vaccinated by April. He said Metro Manila, Cebu City, Davao City, and other areas with high attack rates will receive the first shots.

Of the three brand options given by Galvez, only AstraZeneca has applied for emergency use in the country. Food and Drug Administration Director General Eric Domingo said its approval may come in the next few weeks. The FDA's authorization is necessary for the vaccines to be legally used in the country.

Late in queue?

With neighboring countries like Singapore and Indonesia already starting or about to start their vaccination drives, Senator Richard Gordon questioned why the country was late in procuring the vaccines.

“Hindi kaya pinagbibigyan natin 'yung isa bansa diyan na gusto magbili sa atin? Pero medyo nakaantala 'yun sa atin dahil umaasa tayo na mabibigyan tayo ng libre,” pressed Gordon as he cited the government’s preference for Chinese vaccines.

[Translation: Are we not just waiting for a specific country to sell us their vaccines? But it just delayed our plans because we are expecting that we would be granted free vaccines.]

In response, National Action Plan against COVID-19 deputy chief implementer Vince Dizon denied that the government is favoring some vaccine manufacturers.

“Hindi po 'yun ang rason. Wala po tayong policy na pinapaboran ang isang vaccine o isang bansa. Lahat po ng vaccines na safe and effective ay ipu-pursue ng national government, vaccine czar, at vaccine cluster,” said Dizon.

[Translation: That’s not the reason. We don’t have a policy which favors a specific vaccine brand or country. All vaccines that are proven safe and effective will be pursued by the national government, the vaccine czar, and the vaccine cluster.]

The country is expected to receive 25 million doses of vaccines from Chinese firm Sinovac this year, with the initial 50,000 doses available as early as February.

Despite concerns and criticisms on Sinovac’s 50% efficacy rate, the FDA said it will await the final clinical trial report as some countries have reported better results with the Chinese vaccine.

Moreover, Dizon said the Philippines is not being left behind when it comes to vaccine procurement, as Galvez immediately talked with vaccine manufacturers after he was named vaccine czar.

“Yung mga finalization po ng ating mga agreements sa kanila [vaccine manufacturers] ay nangyayari na po ngayong buwan ng January,” he said.

[Translation: The finalization of our agreements with them are already taking place this January.]

Simulation

Meanwhile, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said the simulation for the COVID-19 vaccine process will be conducted in Pasig City on the third week of January. He clarified that it will not include actual inoculation.

“This is going to be an exercise in simulation, not necessarily giving the vaccines already. We will subject the process to stress test,” said Duque.

During the Senate hearing, the Health chief said some 4,512 sites are targeted as vaccination hubs. He added that in each site, 300 individuals can be vaccinated daily.

Once the COVID-19 vaccination program starts, everyone will be asked to sign a consent form and watch a video about vaccines before inoculation.

The Health Department would also conduct a post-vaccination monitoring and surveillance on possible side effects of the vaccines.

The government aims to vaccinate 50 million to 70 million Filipinos this year using vaccines from at least seven pharmaceutical companies. Health Secretary Francisco Duque III wishes to achieve herd immunity this year, admitting this is the best-case scenario.

Galvez hopes to restore normalcy in the lives of Filipinos by 2023 — three years since the pandemic started. He said this is only possible though the cooperation of the national government, local government units, the public, and other stakeholders.

"It is only through this that we can implement a sustainable immunization program to recover the economy and restore normalcy in the lives of the Filipino people by 2023," he said.