PH non-compliance to COVAX may ‘jeopardize’ allocated vaccines – WHO official

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 4) — The Philippines may risk losing millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses from the global COVAX facility if it fails to follow prioritization requirements, including the strict allocation of the scarce vaccines to medical frontliners and vulnerable sectors, a World Health Organization official warned Thursday.

WHO Representative to the Philippines Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe said the country needs to show that it can properly roll out the vaccines that it will receive through the COVAX facility. He repeatedly said that the second requirement is that vaccines should be given to healthcare workers who are caring for COVID-19 patients then to elderlies and those with co-morbidities.

The WHO official urged the Duterte administration — which has a track record of skipping the vaccine priority list and using smuggled doses — to ensure that requirements that have been agreed to and signed by Philippine officials will be followed.

“We urge the DOH and all partners engaged in the rollout of the vaccines to follow these prioritizations, so we don't impact and jeopardize future deliveries of vaccines through the COVAX facility to the Philippines,” he said in a media briefing.

President Rodrigo Duterte’s close-in security team has received smuggled COVID-19 vaccines made by Chinese firm Sinopharm as early as late 2020, despite the absence of regulatory approval, officials have admitted. His former special appointee, Mon Tulfo, also revealed that he and thousands of other government officials, soldiers, and police personnel have been inoculated with Sinopharm.

READ MORE: Duterte praises PSG after illegal COVID-19 vaccination

Duterte has also allowed vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr., testing czar Vince Dizon, and MMDA Chief Benhur Abalos to be vaccinated with Sinovac in the ongoing rollout, but several other government officials took the shot, including Interior Undersecretary Jonathan Malaya, MMDA Chief of Staff Michael Salalima, and Pasay Vice Mayor Boyet del Rosario — effectively skipping the line which was supposed to cater to healthcare workers.

RELATED: Gov't advisers reject priority vaccination of 'influencers,' government officials, celebrities

Abeyasinghe issued a stern reminder, “We earnestly urge everybody concerned to bear this in mind. We know everybody feels at risk, but it's a matter of relative risk. If we want to ensure that we continue to access the vaccines from the COVAX facility, we need to demonstrate that we can follow the prioritization.”

Over 487,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccines, hailed by Abeyasinghe as "one of the largest consignments" in the initial batch of shipment to developing nations, is arriving on Thursday night.

The Philippines is also set to receive 4.5 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccines until May and 117,000 doses of Pfizer vaccines — possibly more — through the COVAX initiative co-led by Gavi, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and WHO. But this may be in peril if the government fails to stick to the requirements.

Abeyasinghe said they will not "police" the national immunization program, but they will review reports of violations. Although he did not explicitly say that the Philippines' access to COVAX will be cut off, he warned that the facility may consider allocating the vaccines earmarked for the country to other nations that will put importance on saving more lives by prioritizing the protection of healthcare workers.

"Given the large need for vaccines across the world, if there are multiple reports of violation of the prioritization, COVAX may have to decide how to address that challenge. My word of caution is let's not go there," he said.