BY GERARD NAVAL and JOCELYN MONTEMAYOR
AS the country prepared to receive the first batch of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccines from the COVAX Facility, the World Health Organization yesterday warned the Philippines against failing to comply with the agreed priority list of vaccinees.
Some 500,000 doses of vaccines made by AstraZeneca finally arrived last night at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport aboard KLM 803, said vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr. The shipment was originally supposed to arrive last Monday.
President Duterte welcomed the country’s second vaccine supply. The first was a donation from China — 600,000 doses of CoronaVac vaccines made by Sinovac Biotech — which arrived last Sunday. President Duterte said China has promised to donate 400,000 more doses of CoronaVac.
The country’s immunization program started on Monday, with priority on frontline health workers, among others.
Galvez and Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said elderly health workers who cannot be given CoronaVac are likely to be prioritized in the use of AstraZeneca vaccines.
The Food and Drug Administration has issued an emergency use authorization (EUA) to Sinovac but said it can be used only for healthy individuals between 18 and 59 years.
Dr Rabindra Abeyasinghe, WHO Representative to the Philippines, said in a virtual press briefing that the Philippines must ensure that it will comply with the prioritization list for would-be recipients of the AstraZeneca vaccines under COVAX, a global initiative that aims to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines.
COVAX was launched in April last year by the WHO, the European Commission and France in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If we want to ensure that we continue to access the vaccines from COVAX Facility, we need to demonstrate that we can follow protection to prioritization,” said Abeyasinghe.
Otherwise, he said, COVAX Facility may opt to look for other beneficiaries.
“There is a huge demand for vaccines in many affected countries. And if we demonstrate that we are not following this prioritization, unfortunately, the COVAX may have to consider other options, where the impact of the vaccines will be more useful and practical and will contribute to saving more lives,” said Abeyasinghe.
This, he said, means that healthcare workers must be the first to receive the 487,200 doses of AstraZeneca vaccines.
“The vaccines must be used according to the prioritization by starting protecting the 1.8 million health workers that have been identified for the first phase of vaccinations,” Abeyasinghe said.
“We need to acknowledge that the largest sacrifice during this pandemic has been made by healthcare workers,” added Abeyasinghe.
In response, the Department of Health said the National Immunization Technical Advisory Group (NITAG) is set to meet to discuss the prioritization list for the AstraZeneca vaccines.
“NITAG is already finalizing the priority list for this batch of vaccines,” said Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire.
According to the WHO, the COVAX Facility has committed the delivery of up to 4.58 million of AstraZeneca vaccines within the year.
“We are happy to note that the Philippines is receiving one of the largest consignment of COVAX vaccines. In this first initial consignment, there will be 487,000 doses,” said Abeyasinghe.
Vergeire and Galvez said the AstraZeneca vaccines will be stored at the facility of MetroPac Movers Inc. in Marikina City until these are sent out to hospital beneficiaries.
Vergeire said each vial has 10 doses and will only use ordinary syringes.
As for the storage requirements, Vergeire said it only requires a 2 to 8-degree refrigerators.
As to its efficacy against the South African variant of COVID-19, Abeyasinghe said, “We still believe that the AstraZeneca vaccine is still effective even in places where you have the large proportion of cases attributed to the South African variant.”
Last month, South Africa put its rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine on hold after a study showed that the vaccine offered “minimal protection” only against COVID-19.
Subsequently, the WHO advised countries to continue distributing AstraZeneca vaccines which it said can still provide protection from severe COVID-19 illness, hospitalizations, and death.
AstraZeneca, in a statement last night, said it is proud to be a partner to COVAX in enabling communities around the world to access the vaccine as soon as possible.
“We have been working closely with all key stakeholders to fulfill our commitment to provide broad and equitable access to an effective, well-tolerated, and simple-to-administer vaccine at no profit during the pandemic,” said AstraZeneca country president Lotis Ramin.
Ramin also said AstraZeneca’s vaccine single dose has an efficacy of 76 percent against symptomatic COVID-19 in the first 90 days after vaccination, with no significant waning of protection during this period.
He added the vaccine’s efficacy after the second dose is higher in those with a longer interval, reaching 81.3 percent in those with a dosing interval of 12 weeks or more.
He also said clinical trials confirmed that the vaccine provides 100 percent protection against severe disease, hospitalization, and death, more than 22 days after the first dose is administered.
Ramin said research also suggests that the vaccine reduces asymptomatic transmission of the virus, considerably, by up to two-thirds.
AstraZeneca is the first global pharmaceutical company to join the COVAX Facility, in June 2020.
Galvez said government expects 5.2 million to 9 million doses from AstraZeneca under COVAX. The country also expects to receive 117,000 doses from Pfizer-BioNTech under COVAX.
At least 1,245 individuals have already been vaccinated with Sinovac.
The immunization program continued yesterday in Antipolo and Cebu cities – the first cities outside Metro Manila and in the Visayas, respectively, to hold the roll out.