BY JOCELYN MONTEMAYOR and GERARD NAVAL
THE national vaccination program against COVID-19 kicked off yesterday with health workers of six government hospitals the first to receive CoronaVac vaccines made by private Chinese firm Sinovac Biotech.
A number of key government officials have agreed to be among the first recipients of the vaccines donated by China, as part of government efforts to convince the public to have themselves inoculated and to show the vaccines are safe.
Vaccine czar Carlito Galvez, who got the vaccine shot at the Philippine General Hospital, said the country might not move forward unless everyone is immunized.
“It is our moral obligation,” he said.
Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said the vaccination of government officials “aims to demonstrate that COVID-19 vaccines that have secured an EUA (emergency use authorization) from the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) are safe and proven means to prevent COVID-19.”
The Philippines is the last to start the immunization program in Southeast Asia and has a challenge not only to ensure supply of vaccines but also to convince Filipinos to take them, amid concerns over safety.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III did not get vaccinated. The Department of Health said provisions of Sinovac’s EUA “exclude 60 (years) and above.” Duque is 64 years old.
Duque said medical workers need not to worry over the safety of the Sinovac shots. He said Sinovac vaccines have passed all regulatory proceedings to ensure its safety and efficacy.
“Let us get vaccinated. Hesitate no more. Wait no more. This is the key to the return of our normal lives of being creative and productive,” said Duque.
Aside from Galvez, who is chief implementer of the National Task Force against the Coronavirus Disease (NTF COVID-19), other key officials who were inoculated were Vivencio Dizon, NTF deputy chief implementer and president of the Bases Conversion and Development Authority; Eric Domingo, director general of the Food and Drug Administration; and Benjamin Abalos Jr, chairman of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority.
The vaccination of government officials apparently prompted heads of other government agencies yesterday to declare willingness to receive the CoronaVac.
Among them are Speaker Lord Allan Velasco and Muntinlupa City Mayor Jaime Fresnedi, who said they want to convince the people it is safe and necessary to get inoculated against COVID-19, Manila Mayor Isko Moreno who said it is better to get vaccinated with whatever is on hand as long as the vaccine is approved by the authorities.
Groups of medical frontliners and other sectors are questioning the use of the Sinovac vaccine which has a lower efficacy rate compared to vaccines manufactured by Pfizer and AstraZeneca, which are supposed to be the first to arrive in the country.
The 600,000 doses of CoronaVac, the country’s first vaccine supply, arrived on Sunday. It is separate from the 25 million doses being bought by the Philippines from Sinovac. The first batch, amounting to a million doses, is due for delivery this month.
Galvez reiterated that the government intends to complete the vaccination of some 1.7 million health frontliners nationwide within the month with the first batch of Sinovac vaccines set to be delivered to Cebu province from March 3 to 4 and to Davao province from March 5 to 6.
The vaccination rollout will be at the Vicente Sotto Memorial Medical Center in Cebu City and the Southern Philippines Medical Center in Davao City, a day after delivery.
Galvez said aside from the 600,000 doses of the Sinovac vaccine donated by the Chinese government, the country is expecting the delivery of 3.5 million doses of vaccine under the COVAX Facility and the 1 million of the 25 million doses of vaccine bought from Sinovac within this month.
The vaccines under COVAX will come from AstraZeneca and Pfizer. The shipment of 117,000 doses from Pfizer, which was originally due in mid-February, was delayed due to the lack of an indemnification law and disagreements over the scope of indemnity. An initial 525,600 shots for AstraZeneca, which were due on March 1, were delayed due to supply and logistics limitations.
Galvez said the vaccines from Pfizer are expected in the second quarter, probably around April, while the vaccines from AstraZeneca are expected this month. The vaccines coming from COVAX, a global sharing initiative co-led by the World Health Organization, are separate from the vaccines being purchased by the government and are expected to arrive in the third to fourth quarter of the year.
Galvez said all the vaccines, totaling 5.1 million doses, would be used for the inoculation of health frontliners followed by the “government essential workers,” including local government officials such as mayors and barangay captains,barangay response teams, and soldiers.
Galvez reiterated that the bulk of the vaccines that the Philippines is buying is due for delivery in the third to fourth quarter of the year.
He said it is expected that the majority of the vaccination will be done between the third and fourth quarter of the year.
The government is buying 148 million shots of vaccines to inoculate 50 million to 70 million Filipinos within the year.
Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and Sinovac have been issued emergency use authorization (EUA) by the FDA.
Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel “Babe” Romualdez said Manila has reserved 6 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Johnson&Johnson.
He said the vaccine could be delivered to Manila by the second half of this year.
The company recently secured an EUA from the US Food and Drug Administration for its single-dose COVID-19 vaccine.
At least 124 individuals were inoculated at PGH including Galvez, Abalos, and Domingo, and Dr Edsel Salvana, a member of the Department of Health’s technical advisory group.
Abalos said he agreed to be vaccinated because he and his family were infected last year.
Salvana said he opted to be inoculated because he attends to patients who are infected with COVID-19.
Galvez said he was ordered by President Duterte to receive the shot to show everyone that it is safe and effective. He said he, however, opted to be among the last one to be vaccinated for the day to give way to medical frontliners who are the top priority.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque, who attended the launch at PGH, was not inoculated but completed the screening process. He said the vaccine was limited to 100 doses and the priority was given to health and hospital frontline workers. He said he will just return for the inoculation the next day.
Manila Mayor Isko Moreno, who also attended the event at PGH, said he hopes to be inoculated with the Sinovac vaccine today, if there are vials left when the vaccines are delivered and administered to frontliners at the Sta. Ana hospital.
Moreno and Abalos urged the public to be vaccinated regardless of the brand as they reminded everyone that there is still a limited supply of vaccines in the world.
Dizon led inoculation activities at the Jose Rodriguez Memorial Hospital and Sanitarium (Tala) with hospital director Dr. Alfonso Victorino Famaran and chief nurse Samuel Sumilang.
Dizon had high blood pressure during the screening, prompting him to rest first until it became stable and he received the jab.
Six hundred vials were sent to the Tala but only 178 vaccinations were scheduled for the day.
Dizon said he agreed to be vaccinated to convince the public that the vaccines are safe and effective. He said he did not feel any side effect after the jab.
He said after the shot he received a certificate where it was indicated that he received the first dosage of vaccine and was due for a second shot on March 29.
Nograles joined Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Quezon City Mayor Joy Belmonte at the vaccination activities at the Veterans Memorial Medical Center before he proceeded to the inoculation activity with Health Secretary Francisco Duque III and Armed Forces chief Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana at the Victoriano Luna Medical Center, also in Quezon City.
Nograles said all vaccines acquired and to be procured by the government underwent and will undergo stringent evaluation by the FDA to ensure their safety and efficacy.
“Only FDA-approved vaccines, whether for an EUA or for clinical trials, will be used in inoculating the Filipino people. Regardless of brands or country of origin, all vaccine candidates will undergo the same rigorous regulatory review procedures,” he added.
Nograles, Duque and Lorenzana did not receive the shots. Duque and Lorenzana said CoronaVac is recommended for those aged below 59 years.
Medical health workers from the AFP, PNP and DND were among the first to receive the CoronaVac vaccines.
At the V Luna Hospital, Col. Fatima Claire Navarro, the hospital’s commanding officer, was the first to be inoculated followed by other hospital staff. Duque administered the vaccine.
In Camp Crame, the first recipients were PNP General Hospital chief Lt. Col. Cleto Manongas, PNP Health Service director Brig. Gen. Luisito Magnaye, and PNP General hospital deputy director Lt. Col Raymond Ona.
At the VMMC, administrative division chief Bienvenida Montilla, assistant head of radiology and radiotherapy Johann Giovanni Mea, nursing supervisor Gemma Colcol, supply section chief Leovilla Cauilan, and cash section assistant chief Leticia Yadao were the first to get vaccinated.
In Camp Crame, PNP chief Gen. Debold Sinas and DILG undersecretary for peace and order and concurrent DILG officer-in-charge Bernardo Florece led the vaccination of health workers.
Sobejana and Sinas said they would like to be vaccinated yesterday but the medical frontliners should be prioritized.
Lorenzana said he volunteered to be vaccinated at the VMMC and V Luna Medical Center but VMMC director Dominador Chiong and Duque advised against it because the Sinovac vaccine is not fit for people older than 59 years and younger than 18 years.
The 72-year-old Lorenzana said he will wait for the vaccine that is appropriate for his age.
Lorenzana lashed at those belittling CoronaVac’s efficacy.
“Sinovac is very effective… 13 countries are using it, including Indonesia, Brazil, and Thailand. They are not reporting any adverse effect. Why are we looking negatively at that vaccine,” he said.
Sobejana called on the soldiers to get themselves vaccinated and support the government’s thrust to “curve this health crisis so that we will rise from the ground as one.”
Twenty healthcare workers of the Lung Center of the Philippines were among the first to get the vaccines/
“Initially, we have 150 personnel that enlisted. We are confident that there will be more in the coming days,” said LCP Director Vincent Balanag Jr.
In all, he said the LCP has been allocated by the national government 600 Sinovac doses.
“We hope to finish this within the week,” he added.
Balanag said more healthcare workers would have enlisted had it been a different brand of vaccine.
“When we started our preparations for the vaccination, the idea then was Pfizer. So, from our survey, 90 percent agreed to be vaccinated. When we were told that Sinovac is the one coming, we all know what are the discussions on that one,” said Balanag without elaborating.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said Chinese drug manufacturer Sinopharm has filed an application for EUA with the FDA.
President Duterte has expressed preference for Sinopharm for him and his family.
Domingo said he has yet to see Sinopharm’s application for EUA. “As of Friday, there was no application (from Sinopharm). (There are) no new applications,” he added.
Domingo also said it would be impossible for Sinopharm to submit an application yesterday (Monday) as they have no work at the FDA.
“FDA is closed because it’s Araw ng Muntinlupa holiday here in Alabang,” said Domingo.
He did not rule out the possibility of the company filing its application online.
The President, who is turning 76 this month, on Sunday night said his physician has advised him that Sinovac is not ideal for people aged 59 and older.
The FDA last month issued a compassionate authorization to the Presidential Security Group that will allow it to purchase of 10,000 doses of Sinopharm.
Some members of the close in security team of the President last year have received Sinopharm shots despite the lack of EUA. – With Victor Reyes, Ashzel Hachero, Wendell Vigilia, Noel Talacay, and Reuters