More than 24 million people, mostly poor, senior citizens, and health workers will get priority in the initial vaccination drive against COVID-19 which has already claimed the lives of more than 8,500 Filipinos, Malacanang said Monday.
Palace spokesman Harry Roque said the government would give the vaccine free to the poor, police, the military, and front-liners.
Roque said the COVID-19 vaccine is estimated to cost $10 per dose, with two doses required per person.
Vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr said the government is ready to purchase enough vaccines for 24.6 million people once the drugs become available next year.
Metro Manila, Metro Cebu, and Davao are the areas that would be given priority for the vaccination, Roque said.
From these areas, 24,668,128 "sectoral priorities" have been selected, that includes 12,911,193 for the indigent population; 1,762,994 frontline health workers; 3,789,874 indigent senior citizens; 5,678,544 remaining senior citizens and 525,523 uniformed personnel.
They all account for more than 22 percent of the country's projected population of 108.8 million, as of the third quarter this year.
Both Roque and Department of Health Secretary Francisco Duque III reported the same figures to the House of Representatives last month.
The list also includes teachers and school workers in the public and private sectors, government workers, essential workers in agriculture, the food industry, transportation and tourism, sociodemographic groups in significantly higher risk areas other than the senior citizens and indigent population (persons deprived of liberty, persons with disabilities, and Filipinos living in high-density areas, overseas Filipino workers; other remaining workforce and students.
Roque said an estimated P20 billion will be spent to inoculate the priority demographics. He said this amount is already included in the proposed P4.5 trillion national budget for 2021.
He also added that $12 billion would be needed to inoculate 113 million Filipinos.
Duque said in a best-case scenario, vaccination could begin by the first quarter of 2021.
"We’ve done some scenario analysis under the leadership of Secretary Galvez and I think the best case scenario would be about the end of the first quarter of 2021 or about the start of the second quarter of next year," Duque told ANC's Headstart when asked when the inoculation may begin.
"A lot of factors will have to be taken into consideration to be able to more definitively set schedules for actual distribution, deployment, and inoculation of our people within our priority list," he said.
Duque conceded that the timeline for completing the COVID-19 vaccination is not yet certain.
“Of course, it will take time because the schedule would include distribution of vaccines [and] deployment of people for inoculation,” he said.
Only COVID-19 vaccines made by American firms Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and British firm AstraZeneca-Oxford University have been proven to be at least 90 percent effective after human trials so far.
COVID-19 vaccines of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, however, need a -70 to -80 degrees Celsius ultra low freezer for storage to ensure the vaccines’ effectiveness — a challenge for countries with limited resources like the Philippines.
“We do not have that (ultra low freezer) as of the moment, according to the information I got from the Department of Trade and Industry,” Duque said.
Duque said that Pfizer is considering assisting the Philippines in this aspect.
“Our vaccine czar, Secretary Carlito Galvez, said that Pfizer might be willing to provide this very sophisticated -70 degrees cold storage to ensure effectiveness of the vaccines,” he said.
Regulators in the United Kingdom already granted emergency use authorization (EUA) to Pfizer-BioNTech for its COVID-19 vaccines last week, making the UK the first country in the world to do so.
The Philippines already secured 2.6 million doses of AstraZeneca-Oxford COVID-19 vaccines through a tripartite agreement with the private sector and AstraZeneca, with the private sector shouldering the cost.
The 2.6 million doses will be good for 1.3 million people.
AstraZeneca has yet to secure EUA from the Philippine Food and Drug Administration.
Three COVID-19 vaccine makers seeking to run clinical trials in the Philippines passed the country's ethics review board, one of the requirements needed before undergoing evaluation by the Food and Drug Administration, an official said Monday.
These were Janssen, AstraZeneca and Clover, said Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire, who added that Chinese companies Sinovac and Clover Biopharmaceuticals have already been given clearance by the vaccine expert panel.
Vergeire said that Janssen, a COVID-19 vaccine developed by Johnson and Johnson, and Chinese firm Clover joined AstraZeneca in the list of COVID-19 vaccines which already secured the nod of the Ethics Review Board.
Janssen of Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca are both Europe-based companies.
Vergeire said these COVID-19 vaccines would need the approval of both the Ethics Review Board and the Vaccine Experts Panel (VEP) under the Department of Science and Technology before these can be evaluated by the FDA.
The Palace said President Rodrigo Duterte is willing to get vaccinated once a COVID-19 vaccine is approved for domestic use by the FDA.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque however said the public may not witness the vaccination process, saying they don’t want to make the vaccination a spectacle, and would likely be used by the opposition to criticize the government for giving VIP treatment of government officials.
“There is no need to show it live to the public, but in any case it’s the President’s decision. I will not second-guess the President,” Roque said.
In the United States, three former presidents—Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton—said they were willing to be vaccinated on TV to prove that the vaccines were safe.
Duque, meanwhile, said he is willing to be the first one to be inoculated with a COVID-19 vaccine cleared by Philippine regulators.
“Yes [I will do it]. Definitely. That is a no brainer. Sure. No problem,” Duque said in an interview on ANC on Monday.
“I will take it as long as it has undergone scientific evaluation of the Department of Science and Technology’s Vaccine Experts Panel, the Ethics Board Review and the FDA, which will conduct its own regulatory assessment," Duque added.
Also on Monday, a House leader on Monday urged the government to tap Philippine Airlines and other local airline companies in the transport and delivery of Covid-19 vaccines to the country.
“I am assuming that we will get the vaccines from where they are being produced. Instead of foreign carriers, let us use local airlines to help them earn more at this time of pandemic so they would keep their employees,” Assistant Majority Leader and Quezon City Rep. Precious Hipolito Castelo said.
She said foreign airlines could be tapped if their Filipino counterparts could not meet the requirements for transporting Covid-19 vaccines.
Castelo noted that there have been estimates that it would take more than 50 Boeing 777s to fly 60 million doses to Manila.
Once the vaccine arrives in the country, the next challenge is to transport it to the regions, provinces, cities, and towns, which would require the use of local airlines as well, she said.
Aside from PAL, the other major domestic air carriers are AirAsia Philippines and Cebu Pacific. There are other smaller airlines flying from Manila, Clark and other regional hubs.
“The government can help them avoid shedding more manpower if it can engage their services in the delivery of the vaccine,” Castelo said.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) on Monday said it would help in the transportation and distribution of vaccines once these arrive in the country.
AFP chief-of-staff Gen. Gilbert Gapay said the military would assist especially in the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines in remote areas in the country.