Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque has described the government’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout last week as slow thus far because health workers, the top priority in the vaccination program, were given the opportunity to choose their preferred brand.
Roque was relying to questions if the government’s target of vaccinating 70 million individuals against COVID-19 by the end of the year was still achievable, considering that only 1.12 million donated doses of COVID-19 vaccine from Sinovac and AstraZeneca—both administered in two doses—had been delivered to the country so far.
Roque was referring to the protocol set by the government which allowed health workers to turn down the Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine—the first COVID-19 vaccine to be made available in the Philippines—and instead take the next available COVID-19 vaccine brand which is AstraZeneca.
Under the same protocol, health workers will not lose their priority status even if they choose the vaccine brand of their preference.
The Philippine Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommended Sinovac for clinically healthy individuals aged 18 to 50 years old. The FDA, however, did not recommend Sinovac on health care workers since its efficacy rate in such group only reached 50.4 percent.
Meanwhile, the current supply of COVID-19 vaccines in the country is still not enough for health workers, which is why the priority vaccination list should be strictly followed, the Department of Health said Monday.
“No, it is not yet enough,” Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire, in a media briefing, said of the over 1 million doses of vaccines that have arrived in the country since last week.
Vergeire said the donated 600,000 doses from Chinese drugmaker Sinovac were only good for 300,000 individuals, and the more than 500,000 doses from AstraZeneca are for around 260,000 people, since each recipient needs 2 doses of each vaccine brand.
“If we add that, it’s just going to comprise 500,000 plus doses. We know that we have 1.8 million estimated health care workers from hospitals down to the community across the different regions of the country. So it’s really not enough to cover all of our health workers.),” Vergeire said.
Vergeire's explanation comes amid reports of some government officials being vaccinated ahead of health workers despite not getting priorapproval from the national government.
Quezon province Rep. Helen Tan had said she was vaccinated at the Veterans Memorial Medical Center because her son, who works there as a surgeon, was entitled to include family members in the facility's inoculation program.
Interior Undersecretary Jonathan Malaya and Metropolitan Manila Development Authority public services head Michael Salalima were supposedly prompted by Pasay General Hospital staff to be vaccinated as well last week.
Malacañang earlier said that only vaccine czar Sec. Carlito Galvez Jr., testing czar Vince Dizon, and Metro Manila Development Authority Chairman Benhur Abalos Jr. were allowed by the National Immunization Technical Advisory Group (NITAG) to be vaccinated alongside health workers to boost vaccine confidence.
Vergeire said that once vaccination had been completed in hospitals in other regions, the vaccines will be brought down to the community level.
Vergeire also said the AstraZeneca vaccine, scheduled for rollout today, would also be given to the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine, the Jose B Lingad Memorial Regional Hospital in Pampanga, and the Bataan General Hospital and Medical Center.
She said a simple ceremony would mark the start of the rollout of vaccines in these facilities.
Asked if the government officials who supposedly breached the priority line will still get their second dose, Vergeire said they would as the second dose for all those vaccinated were already allocated and secured.
“We cannot waste the vaccine that is already given. They will have to be given a second dose,” she said.
Close to 15,000 health workers in the country have contracted COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, of whom, a little over 200 are currently battling the disease. Eighty-two have died.
The Philippines received the Sinovac vaccine, its first supply, last Feb. 28, followed by those from AstraZeneca on March 4 and March 7.
The country's vaccination rollout kicked off March 1.
In other developments, families of health workers were not among those who would receive vaccines against COVID-19 during the initial rollout, the Department of Health said on Monday.
Vergeire emphasized that the government's priority was to vaccinate the health workers.
The Philippines now has 1.1 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines — 600,000 doses of Sinovac vaccine donated by China and 525,600 doses of AstraZeneca from the COVAX facility.
Vergeire said the current supply of vaccines was not enough to cover the 1.8 million health workers across the country. Both the Sinovac and AstraZeneca vaccines required two doses for maximum protection against COVID-19.
More than 29,000 Filipinos have been vaccinated against COVID-19 since the Philippines began its inoculation program on March 1, according to DOH data.
At the same time, Senator Francis Pangilinan said due to the recent spike in COVID cases and the emergence of new strains approaching the first year of the pandemic lockdown in the country, the authorities must prioritize front-liners and informal economy workers as among those who should get the vaccine.
“We cannot afford a new economic plunge with the surge in COVID cases, whether old or new strain,” Pangilinan said in a statement.
In a related development, the Customs bureau has facilitated the release of the second tranche of AstraZeneca vaccines donated by Covax facility.
The shipment of 38, 400 vials arrived at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport Sunday night on board Royal Dutch KLM Airlines from Amsterdam.
Port of NAIA district collector Carmelita Talusan said like the first tranche of AstraZeneca donation which arrived last Thursday night, the 2nd importation underwent advance processing at the airport's One-Stop-Shop and were immediately released upon arrival.
She added the shipment was placed under tight watch until delivery at Metropac Warehouse, the cold storage facility in Marikina City designated by the Department of Health.
Talusan said the expeditious and seamless clearance process was the result of the month-long preparation of the bureau in active coordination with Inter-agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) through meetings and simulations prior to the arrival of these vaccines.
"We assure the public that the handling team is ready to facilitate the immediate release of COVID-19 vaccines as they arrive, to fully supplement the COVID-19 vaccination program of the government," said Talusan.