PH receives nearly half a million doses of AstraZeneca vaccines

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 4) — The initial batch of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines from the COVAX facility arrived in the country Thursday evening.

The plane carrying 487,200 doses of the vaccine developed by the British-Swedish pharmaceutical firm landed at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport at around 7:10 p.m.

The vaccines were then transferred to the Villamor Air Base where President Rodrigo Duterte and other officials personally welcomed the shipment's arrival.

Executives from some member countries of the European Union were also invited in what Vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr. labeled as a "symbolic reception."

In his speech, Duterte said the AstraZeneca delivery will further boost the country's ongoing immunization program, as he vowed the national government will work towards immediate vaccine distribution to communities.

"On this note, I would like to appeal to all our kababayans [fellow countrymen], please get vaccinated against COVID-19 and be the government's partner in preventing the further spread of the disease," he said. "These vaccines are safe, and they are the key to reopening our society."

Duterte also noted the delivery comes after the "highly successful" nationwide rollout of China's Sinovac vaccines.

From the air base, the AstraZeneca vaccines were transported to Metropac, Marikina, its storage location prior to deployment. According to the Department of Health, distribution will immediately commence after repackaging.

The AstraZeneca shipment was supplied by the World Health Organization-led COVAX facility, a global initiative that seeks to ensure nations' equitable access to coronavirus vaccines. The particular batch was developed in South Korea and donated by European nations.

One AstraZeneca vial contains 10 doses, with the products to be stored inside temperature-controlled boxes, the DOH said.

Who is it for?

While there are no set protocols yet for the rollout prioritization of the AstraZeneca vaccine, Galvez said some doctors recommended it be given to senior healthcare workers. The WHO also recommends that priority be given to medical frontliners at higher risk of exposure, as well as old people.

Galvez said the move will "offset" the limitations of China's Sinovac vaccine, the first to arrive in the country but was initially not recommended for those over 59 years old.

READ: PH can expand age group recommendation for Sinovac vaccine once more data come in — FDA

"We want to offset those limitations by having this AstraZeneca available for our senior citizens," Galvez pointed out in an interview with CNN Philippines’ The Source. "'Yun po ang tinitingnan naming na anggulo, para at least, well protected po 'yung ating mga vulnerable na senior healthcare workers."

[Translation: That's the angle we're looking at, so at least, our vulnerable senior healthcare workers will be protected.]

Galvez said the National Immunization Technical Advisory Group will be meeting today regarding the matter.

The WHO notes that the vaccine is not recommended for persons under 18 years old pending the results of further studies.

However, Dr. Jaime Montoya, executive director of the Department of Science and Technology – Philippine Council for Health Research and Development, said the vaccine can be administered to "almost all of the population." It is also recommended for people with comorbidities, he added.

“But of course, for some of the population that may have specific requirements or vulnerabilities, we request or we advise the attending physicians to weigh the risk versus the benefits," he said. "But we still think that the benefits outweigh the risk as far as vaccinating all these populations are concerned with the AstraZeneca vaccine."

Why a smaller shipment?

Government officials earlier announced that the country was supposed to receive 525,600 doses of the vaccine from the British drug maker. Galvez explained that the smaller shipment was due to cargo limitations – since the products are on board a commercial flight.

“This is a commercial airline, may mga pasahero po ito, so may mga restrictions po tayo sa mga packages,” the vaccine czar said. “Considering that it is commercial, so nagkaroon po sigurong limitations in terms of ‘yung sa cargo.”

[Translation: This is a commercial airline, which has passengers, so there are restrictions for the packages. Considering that it is commercial, that’s probably why we had limitations in terms of the cargo.]

The AstraZeneca doses from the COVAX facility, a global initiative that seeks to ensure nations' equitable access to coronavirus vaccines, faced a slight delivery delay as it was earlier scheduled to come in on Monday. World Health Organization country representative Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe said this was due to logistical concerns.

Abeyasinghe said that the Philippines will be receiving “one of the largest consignments of COVAX vaccines” in this first initial delivery.

What about concerns of its lower efficacy vs. the South Africa variant?

Initial studies showed the AstraZeneca vaccine provided only "minimal protection" against mild and moderate COVID-19 from the South Africa variant. OCTA Research fellow and molecular biologist Fr. Nicanor Austriaco even said the new variant dramatically decreases the AstraZeneca vaccine's efficacy from 70% to just 10%.

But for Montoya, the most important thing now is to get inoculated as soon as possible.

"Remember that in the Philippines, we do not have that big of a problem yet," the infectious disease expert said, referring to the new variant. "We think it's just in a few cases as of now, and hopefully it will be contained."

He stressed mutations happen normally, but the likelihood of this happening will decrease if more people will get themselves vaccinated.

"That is the basic principle. Vaccinate as many as we can to build immunity, so that it will reduce transmission, make people more immune to the viral infection, therefore, less chances of mutation and of course, the variants developing," he explained.

Sharing the same position, Presidential Adviser for Entrepreneurship Joey Concepcion said he still believes AstraZeneca's claim that its vaccines can help prevent severe cases of the viral disease.

"We can't always wait. There will always be mutations, and there will always be challenges here," he told CNN Philippines. "As it comes, we should take and vaccinate ourselves because the South African variant is just few and it's easily containable."

He also expressed optimism that the arrival of the vaccines will help fast-track economic recovery. According to Concepcion, 2.6 million more AstraZeneca doses procured by the private sector are expected to arrive in the country in May to June. Of this, half will be used by businesses, while the other half will be donated to the government for the immunization of frontliners.