Is PH ready for COVID-19 vaccination program? WHO says it's 'on track'

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 6) — The World Health Organization believes the Philippines is on the right course for a successful rollout of COVID-19 vaccines to protect Filipinos from the highly-contagious virus.

"There are some aspects that are important for the vaccine rollout readiness, which the Philippines has already put in place,” WHO Coordinator for Essential Medicines and Health Technologies Dr. Socorro Escalante said on Wednesday.

She laid down WHO’s four key criteria to determine if a nation is prepared and equipped to carry out its national vaccination program: regulatory readiness, the presence of a national vaccination deployment plan, availability of storage facilities, and safety monitoring plans to check for possible adverse effects of the drug.

Escalante lauded the order issued by President Rodrigo Duterte in December authorizing the Food and Drug Administration to grant emergency use authorization or EUA to vaccine manufacturers and recognize assessments of other regulatory agencies. She said this is a crucial stage in the country’s inoculation program.

"That is a very important step that makes the country ready because the first filter for vaccines to be deployed in the country is about the regulatory process to ensure that all vaccines coming in the country are safe, efficacious, and of good quality," she said in a media briefing.

The FDA has yet to complete the EUA application review of US biopharmaceutical firm Pfizer-BioNTech and British company AstraZeneca.

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Escalante acknowledged the deployment plan crafted by vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr., the Department of Health, and other agencies is already in the "final stages of development."

The WHO official also said the Philippines has existing cold chain storage equipment to keep vaccine vials. She noted that the government is “ready to deploy the ultra-cold chain” storages, which is the requirement in some vaccines such as the ones made by Pfizer.

Galvez said equipment that can keep vaccines at minus 70 degrees Celcius are only available in Metro Manila, Sta. Rosa in Laguna, Cebu, and Davao. The government is in talks with the private sector to establish cold storage rooms and walk-in freezers to keep vaccines in the required temperature to ensure its efficacy.

Escalante recognized the ongoing efforts of the FDA to create protocols to monitor those who have been injected. She stressed its importance since the approved vaccines are still undergoing trials, therefore it needs strict post-monitoring.

Bagong-bago ang bakuna at magkakaroon iyan ng adverse events. All vaccines have the risk of having an unexpected event,” she said.

[Translation: It’s a new vaccine so there will be adverse events. All vaccines have that risk.]

Taking these four aspects into account, Escalante said the Philippines is on track in its vaccination program.

Sa nakikita namin [From what we can see], the Philippines is on track in terms of preparation for vaccine introduction and for the vaccine rollout, including distribution,” she said.

The government aims to secure 148 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines from around seven companies this year. If this goes as planned, around 50 to 70 million Filipinos could be vaccinated by the end of 2021. But Galvez said the actual number of doses that will be bought depends on the availability of vaccines as he noted that 80% percent of the global supply has already been procured by rich countries.

The Philippines has so far only sealed two vaccine agreements. The private sector and national government secured 2.6 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccines, while the Quezon City government and the National Task Force Against COVID-19 closed a deal for 750,000 doses from the same company.