PH rolls out COVID-19 vaccine drive with frontliners, gov't officials taking first shots

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 1) — Over a year since the country's first coronavirus case, the Philippines — the last among its neighbors in southeast Asia — kicked off its inoculation drive on Monday.

Hundreds of medical frontliners across six hospitals in Metro Manila were inoculated on Day 1. Alongside them, a handful of government officials were also vaccinated with the limited doses of Sinovac vaccines donated by China.

Adhering to the government's vaccination priority list, the first shot officially administered was received by the director of the University of the Philippines-Philippine General Hospital, Dr. Gerardo "Gap" Legaspi. He was followed by Food and Drug Administration Director General Eric Domingo, MMDA Chief Benhur Abalos, and vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr. Testing czar Vince Dizon, meanwhile, was injected with Sinovac's CoronaVac vaccine at the TALA Hospital during the vaccination activity simultaneously held in different hospitals in the capital region.

Health experts and the World Health Organization have stressed the need to prioritize the protection of healthcare workers because they are at high risk of contracting the highly-transmissible disease due to their work.

The Philippines has only received 600,000 doses of Sinovac vaccines, which will be good to inoculate 300,000 people. In contrast, there are 1.7 million frontline health workers in the country.

PGH was able to vaccinate 124 medical staff on the first day. Several frontliners from PGH were apprehensive to receive Sinovac vaccines because the company has not yet published its phase 3 clinical data findings and it offers lower protection against mild COVID-19 compared with other brands.

Other healthcare workers from the Lung Center of the Philippines, Dr. Jose Rodriguez Memorial Medical Center and Sanitarium, Veterans Memorial Medical Center, PNP General Hospital, and V. Luna Medical Center also received their much- awaited shots. DOH said 404 health workers were vaccinated across the seven hospitals, but they are still waiting for the data from Veterans.

Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said the vaccination of government officials aims to prove that the vaccines made by Sinovac are safe to use.

Meanwhile, Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez expressed hope that the first rollout will bring optimism to the public amid the global crisis.

"Itong start ng rollout, this can bring heightened optimism sa lahat" [Translation: The vaccine rollout can bring heightened optimism to everyone], Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez said during a separate virtual briefing.

Hospitals target to vaccinate more of their workers in the coming days in the hopes of completing the vaccination of their sector this month. Galvez said doses will be sent to Cebu City and Davao City this week so their government hospitals can also start their vaccination drive. It will also be shipped to other regions. The official added there will be 70,000 doses that can serve as buffer stock.

Elderly officials opt out

While it has been admitted that several government officials jumped the priority line as early as last year using smuggled Sinopharm vaccines, some elderly Cabinet members opted to wait for a different brand of vaccine.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque III and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana opted not to get the vaccine following the recommendation of FDA that CoronaVac is not ideal for those above 59 years old since Sinovac did not include elderlies in its clinical trials.

"Ang sabi ni Secretary Duque, huwag muna, kasi above 59 years old ka na, sabi niya. Hindi natin alam kung ano ang epekto. So we will follow what our Secretary of Health will say," Lorenzana said at the ceremony in Veterans.

[Translation: Secretary Duque said I am over 59. We do not know the effect, so we will follow what he said.]

DOH said Duque, who is 64, will also wait for an "appropriate" vaccine for him.

The Food and Drug Administration, upon granting of the emergency use authorization, cautioned against using CoronaVac vaccines on healthcare workers due to the lower efficacy rate at 50.4% when tested in Brazil on workers directly dealing with COVID-19 patients.

However, the government's health experts overturned this just days before the national vaccination rollout. The National Immunization Technical Advisory Group and the DOH's Technical Advisory Group found that Sinovac's CoronaVac is 50.4% effective in preventing mild symptoms, but 100% effective against moderate and severe symptoms. This means it can effectively reduce diseases and deaths – the main goal for prioritizing medical frontliners in the vaccination program, Health spokesperson Maria Rosario Vergeire said.

Duque revealed that the donation from China was worth P403 million or less than P680 per dose. But Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque argued China's goodwill is "unquantifiable in pesos and cents."

The next batch of vaccination remains uncertain since only 600,000 doses of Sinovac – good for 300,000 people — have arrived in the country. The vaccine czar said they have placed a purchase order for one million doses of Sinovac, with a price tag of P700 million, set to arrive this month. He added that Beijing's Sinovac and Russia's Sputnik V are the only ones available in the market due to heavy global supply demand.

Meanwhile, the Employers Confederation of the Philippines (ECOP) hopes the vaccine rollout will signal the gradual reopening of the country’s economy.

ECOP President Sergio Ortiz-Luis emphasized the national government must thoroughly review its protocols, especially for the workers’ welfare, while the vaccine rollout is ongoing to ensure there will be no problems once quarantine measures are relaxed.

“There are still things that can be done in reviewing protocols and procedures that can enable employees who have not gone to work to come to work and companies which are not thinking of continuing operations to make money again while employing people,” Ortiz-Luis told CNN Philippines’ The Final Word on Monday.

The Philippines is the last in ASEAN to rollout its vaccination drive despite having the second highest number of cases. Coronavirus cases in the country hit 576,352, with over 2,000 new infections recorded in the past four days. The country now has 12,318 deaths since recording its first fatality on February 2 — the first death outside of China, where the virus was first detected.