Philippine officials defend AstraZeneca vaccine deal

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, November 27) — Government officials admitted about risks in signing an agreement with AstraZeneca for the purchase of around 2.6 million doses of coronavirus vaccine, but it's a risk the country needed to take.

Vaccine czar Carlito Galvez, Jr. and Presidential Adviser for Entrepreneurship Joey Concepcion on Friday led the signing of the tripartite agreement with the British-Swedish drug maker and some of the biggest names in business, who pitched in to secure vaccine supply.

Galvez and Concepcion said AstraZeneca offered the vaccine at no profit, making it the easiest and cheapest purchase. One dose is just $10 or almost ₱500. The downpayment for every dose is only $5 or nearly ₱250.

This means a deposit of almost ₱626 million for the nearly 2.6 million doses under the deal.

“I’m not saying we’re willing to throw money,” Concepcion said. “I think it’s worth a risk to put a bet on this vaccine.”

“We definitely are putting our bet. There is a risk but the potential solution to the economy definitely outweighs the risk,” he added.

The donations are expected to vaccinate more than 1.5 million Filipinos next year. However, in the US and other parts of the world, medical experts are casting doubt on the vaccine AstraZeneca is developing with the University of Oxford.

AstraZeneca reported that its experimental vaccine has an average efficacy of 70%. One group of participants was first given a half-dose and then a full-dose a month later, resulting in a 90% protection against COVID-19. The others, however, were given full doses on both instances. They were only 62% protected.

Clinical trials were put on hold twice because government regulators were concerned about two study participants who became seriously ill.

Jaime Montoya, executive director of the Department of Science and Technology-Philippine Council for Health Research and Development, in an online media briefing said the vaccine experts panel will review documents submitted by AstraZeneca to verify questions on the vaccine efficacy. 

The country has been under varying levels of community quarantine since March in a bid to arrest the spread of COVID-19. Businesses were forced to close, displacing millions of workers, pushing the country into recession.

“This is how desperate the private sector is in trying to really open the economy safely and the only way to really restore sectors like tourism, the restaurants, the retail – we really have to vaccinate the people,” Concepcion said.

“Let’s have faith. We’re a country of prayerful Filipino people. We want an end to this nightmare, and this is the best alternative we have. We are willing to take this risk,” he added.

Galvez said the vaccine being developed by AstraZeneca has been among the top three vaccines the government is eyeing to purchase due to its positive results. It is also among the pharmaceutical companies expected to hold clinical trials in the country by December, once its application is approved.

The government targets to vaccinate at least 25 million people per year beginning 2021, Galvez said. Bulk of the inoculation is expected to come from COVAX, a global collaboration to fast-track the development and production of COVID-19 diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines, as well as ensure equitable access to them.

Galvez said there are bilateral and multilateral efforts to ensure an equitable supply of vaccine for Filipinos, but admitted it will take time for these to bear fruit.

“At least we have a sure dosage of vaccine for next year,” Galvez said of the vaccine from AstraZeneca.

As of the last Social Weather Stations survey, 66% of Filipinos said they are willing to take a coronavirus vaccine. Galvez expects the number to increase once the government conducts massive information dissemination on vaccine safety and efficacy.