BY JOCELYN MONTEMAYOR and GERARD NAVAL
THE first batch of vaccines against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is expected to arrive in the country on Sunday, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said yesterday.
The Department of Health and the National Task Force against COVID-19 said nothing has been finalized as to the rollout date of government’s vaccination program and recipients of the 600,000 doses of CoronaVac vaccines from Sinovac Biotech, a private Chinese firm.
“Specific details as to the allocation and subsequent rollout of the 600,000 donated Sinovac doses are still being evaluated pending the official recommendation of the National Immunization Technical Advisory Group (NITAG) and its approval by the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID),” the agencies said in a joint statement.
It said the vaccines donated by China “are scheduled to arrive within the next couple of days” with an arrival ceremony being prepared at Villamor Air Base in Pasay City.
“However, details of the planned arrival ceremony are still currently being finalized in close coordination with the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China,” the statement also said.
The statement was issued after Roque said the arrival of the vaccines could lead to the start of the vaccination program by Monday.
Roque also said the vaccines are expected to benefit at least 50,000 soldiers and 250,000 health and medical frontlines, if they would agree to be vaccinated.
The Philippines is acquiring 148 million doses of vaccines from various firms and targets to inoculate 50 million to 70 million Filipinos. The country is also expecting vaccines from the COVID Facility, a global initiative aimed at ensuring equitable access to vaccines, from makers Pfizer and AstraZeneca.
Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and Sinovac have been issued emergency use authorization (EUA) by the Food and Drug Administration.
Pfizer, under COVAX, was supposed to deliver 177,000 doses of vaccine between the middle to last week of February but vaccine czar Carilto Galvez Jr. said on Wednesday night that arrangements concerning the indemnity agreement are still being finalized.
Galvez said negotiations to expedite the delivery of vaccines are still ongoing and reiterated there is a limited supply of vaccines in the world.
He reiterated the bulk of vaccines the Philippines has ordered is due to arrive in the third to fourth quarter of the year.
Despite having among the highest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Asia, the Philippines will be the last Southeast Asian country to receive its initial set of vaccines.
The Philippines has ordered 25 million doses from Sinovac and was supposed to receive its first batch on Feb. 23. That was delayed as an EUA was given only this week.
Aside from Sinovac, 10,000 doses of a vaccine developed by China’s Sinopharm will arrive soon, under a “compassionate use” for Duterte’s security detail. Doses from AstraZeneca will arrive in March, Roque said.
“I have to admit, if we insisted on Western brands, we will still wait for its arrival,” he added.
Duterte, who has pursued warmer ties with China and has a strained relationship with many Western countries, has previously said he wanted to procure COVID-19 vaccines from China or Russia.
COVID-19 vaccination is mandatory among soldiers and those who refuse to be inoculated may be punished under the Articles of War, the military said.
In a press briefing, AFP spokesman Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo said the Sinovac vaccine donated by China is the “reserved” vaccine for members of the Armed Forces.
“To get inoculated or not is not an option for the members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. It is a duty,” said Arevalo, adding soldiers need to be vaccinated to effectively perform their duties, including in the fight against the pandemic.
“The rule is everybody must be inoculated, as expressed and directed by the chief of staff of the AFP, Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana,” Arevalo also said, adding those who refuse to be inoculated will be dealt with accordingly.
He said the Armed Forces is governed by military regulations and non-compliance to “regulations” and “legal orders” from superior officers, the AFP chief on this case, “will be dealt with disciplinary actions.
“They can be punished under Article of War 105 which is the commanding officers’ disciplinary powers.”
Military commanders, under Article of War 105, are empowered to impose sanctions, including dismissal from the service, for violation of specific military regulations or orders.
Compared to vaccines from Pfizer and AstraZeneca, Sinovac’s vaccine has a low efficacy rate. Sinovac has said it obtained a 50.4 percent efficacy rate during clinical trials on health workers in Brazil and higher efficacy ratings of 51 percent to more than 90 percent in other countries where they conducted clinical trials.
Arevalo said soldiers who do not want to be vaccinated for free with Sinovac can chose other vaccine brands but will have to wait when these will be available and will have to shoulder the cost.
Quoting Sobejana, Arevalo said “at the end of the day, all or every AFP personnel and their immediate dependents must be vaccinated.”
“The chief of staff said its better to be 50.4 percent protected, that is in case of those who are exposed to COVID-19 patients, than not having any protection at all,” Arevalo also said.
Arevalo soldiers who decide to wait for other vaccine brand cannot refuse orders for them to be deployed for certain duties, like manning of checkpoints and securing the rollout of vaccines to other sectors of the society.
The Healthcare Professionals Alliance against COVID-19 (HPAAC) asked government to allow the Health Technology Assessment Council to review the Sinovac vaccines, aside from NITAG, and determine who should be prioritized for these shots.
“Because of this limitation imposed by the FDA recommendation on Sinovac, we are now placed in a quandary on who should be prioritized to receive the 600,000 donated doses of Sinovac. Should it be the healthcare workers who are first on the list of the national vaccine prioritization program or should it be other groups deemed more suited for the same by FDA?” said HPAAC.
Under the EUA, the CoronaVac is recommended only to clinically healthy people aged 18-59 years, and not for healthcare workers with constant exposure to COVID-19 patients.
This has prompted the NITAG to hold discussions for changes in the priority list for COVID-19 vaccines developed by Sinovac. – With Victor Reyes and Reuters