President Rodrigo Duterte is worried the second dose of COVID-19 vaccines for the country won’t arrive in time to boost the first shot already received by several thousand frontliners, even as he told Filipinos on Monday not to despair amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III also said his department would investigate claims on social media that almost 50,000 doses of donated COVID-19 vaccines were mishandled by a logistics company that did not meet government standards.
In his televised address Monday night, Duterte said the government would also use all vehicles at its disposal to bring mobile vaccination teams to the poor, especially to squatter areas in Metro Manila, or fetch the indigent to bring them to vaccine centers.
The President also wants to distribute masks to everybody, even as Duque admitted bringing the vaccines to squatters would be difficult since it would require manpower the government can ill afford, especially in monitoring the possible effects of the vaccines.
“This is my question since everyone is in a hurry (to get inoculated). We have doses intended for the second injection. The booster would follow in so many days. That isn’t being used since the second booster (shot) is the problem because it’s said to (expire soon),” Duterte said.
“You know, how about those needing already the second dose? There’s a problem there. You could say we would use that as the first dose to those who haven’t been vaccinated. That’s good. But the problem is, if you say, the second dose would come from the future deliveries, that’s okay. The next problem is it might not come,” he added.
The President noted that the second coronavirus dose must be given 12 weeks or three months after the first jab.
Duterte expressed hope that the World Health Organization “must know our quandary” in using the country’s current supply of 525,000 doses, all from donations from China’s Sinovac Biotech and WHO’s Covax facility.
Vaccine czar Carlito Galvez, who recently came from India to secure more shots, told the President that 970,200 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine are arriving on March 22 and a total of 2.3 million doses by April.
He and Duque also agreed that owing to their short shelf life, the AstraZeneca jabs should be used as the first dose for medical frontliners and those on the government’s priority list.
Duque also told ABS-CBN News it was unlikely for AstraZeneca and Sinovac vaccines to be mishandled since they “are not requiring ultra-low storage temperature.”
Unlike Pfizer and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines that are required to be frozen, the vaccine brands received so far by the country only require normal refrigerator temperatures.
“I cannot understand how they can be allowed to be mismanaged in a temperature that is easy to be achieved,” Duque said. “So that’s something we have to look into.”
Meanwhile, Duque revealed that two areas in Metro Manila are at “critical risk” for COVID-19 and 16 others are “high risk” areas, as 2,842 cases of the 5,404 cases recorded on Monday were from the National Capital Region.
“If we are unable to stem the spread, we might breach the first surge in July and August last year,” the Health secretary told the President.
In NCR and the Cordillera Autonomous Region where coronavirus cases have increased, Duque said cases of the UK variant, which the DOH has tagged as the “variant of concern,” were also detected.
“But we are not yet sure if the UK variant is a factor, or this is just a coincidence, or one of several factors that led to the spike,” he added.
Duque said sticking to the plan of vaccinating people in regional health units or identified hospitals will allow for the final and crucial step: that of monitoring for adverse effects.
Duterte relented and said the mobile vaccination teams should assess if transportation can be provided instead to poor people who might not have the means to go to vaccination centers.
In achieving herd immunity against the coronavirus, Duque said earlier Monday it can be done in 11 to 12 months, or by March next year, if it manages to vaccinate 450,000 people each day.
Duque based this on the assumption that the Philippines would have a supply of some 140 million vaccine doses against COVID-19 as well as 4,500 vaccination sites that inoculate 100 individuals each site daily.
Herd immunity is a concept wherein a virus can no longer spread easily because enough people are made immune to it via vaccination.
Galvez previously said the country needed to reach its goal of inoculating 50 to 70 million Filipinos -- the recommended 60 percent, of the country's 110-million population, scientists estimated was needed to reach herd immunity -- by the end of 2021.
But Duque said in a media forum following the launch of the European Union’s support to the country’s COVID-19 response: “It will take probably 11 to 12 months to do that, perhaps five to six months for the first dose and four to five months for the second dose.”
“If you have 4,500 implementing units or vaccination sites at 100 vaccinees per site, so that’s 450,000 a day. If you divide [that by] 70 million Filipinos… then it will take you about 159 days,” Duque said.
“Assuming that Sundays are off, [vaccination] is six days a week, so you’ll do it in five to six months for the first dose and four to five months for the second dose,” he added.
However, the country has only received 1,125,600 doses so far, all of which were donations from the Chinese government and the COVAX Facility, a global initiative aimed at equitable access to vaccines.
Of this number, 193,492 shots have been administered to health workers as of March 13.
Duque said he could not promise a timeline for the arrival of other doses.
Despite the launch of the vaccination program at the start of the month, the Philippines is battling a fresh surge of COVID-19 cases that health authorities have attributed to new coronavirus variants and the public’s relaxed adherence to health protocols.
Experts have warned that the Philippines could see up to 20,000 new COVID-19 cases per day by April if the surge is not contained.
The country's total tally of COVID-19 cases reached 621,498, with recoveries at 560,512 and deaths at 12,829.
Meanwhile, presidential adviser for entrepreneurship Joey Concepcion said the number of persons inoculated with AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine in Europe and the UK with increased risk of blood clots was "below the normal."
Only 15 events of deep vein thrombosis, or when a blood clot forms in a vein deep inside a person's body, have been recorded, he said, citing a statement from AstraZeneca's CEO.
"There is nothing extraordinary about what’s happening. It’s way below the normal that is expected," he told ABS-CBN's Teleradyo.
Some 5 million doses of AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine from global alliance COVAX Facility are set to arrive until May, according to Concepcion.
The private sector and local governments' order of 17 million jabs from AstraZeneca are set to arrive beginning May with an initial batch of 2.6 million, Concepcion said. The remaining balance of 14.5 million will arrive in the third quarter, he added.
In other developments, PNP officer-in-charge Lt. Gen. Guillermo Eleazar said despite reports of police officials getting infected by the coronavirus, the Philippine National Police still would not include them as priority in the vaccination program like healthcare workers.
In a press conference on Monday, Eleazar was asked if they were considering now to inoculate officials to ensure their duties would not be affected.
“We have a priority list. We want to get the vaccine shots already, but we have to prioritize healthcare workers,” he said.