President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday night told Filipinos that they could buy their own vaccines from Pfizer if “they want to follow the experience of Norway” — a remark that could hinder the government’s efforts to boost public confidence on Covid-19 immunization.
In a televised address, Duterte mocked senators who supposedly favored the coronavirus vaccine developed by the American manufacturer and its German partner, BioNTech, following the deaths of at least 29 Norwegian elders days after receiving the jab.
“Gusto ninyo ng Pfizer kayong mga senador. In Norway, 25 persons (sic) died after receiving Pfizer vaccination. Gusto ninyo? Mag-order kami para sa inyo,” Duterte said.
The President also said that rich people and doctors who prefer the vaccine made by the Western firm may opt to buy their own doses, for as long as it has the go signal of the country’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
“If you want to follow the experience of Norway, go ahead. Nobody would stop you. But this I can tell you, we never prohibited anybody from buying from the government. We are not selling. We are buying for the people. Libre,” he said.
“Ngayon, kung kayong mga hospital, mga doktor o kung mayaman, gusto ninyong magbili ng inyo, go ahead. Do not wait for us. If you have the money, buy it. But dumaan ka lang sa FDA… Doon kayo sa FDA and finally, doon sa Secretary of Health,” he added.
Norway has expressed concern on the safety of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine on elderly people with serious underlying medical conditions, even as it claimed that it was not alarmed by the incident.
After the assessment of the first few cases of death, the Norwegian Medicines Agency said that deaths occurred among patients aged between 75 to 80 years old with serious basic disorders.
“It is quite clear that these vaccines have very little risk, with a small exception for the frailest patients,” Medical Director Steinar Madsen was quoted as saying by Associated Press.
Pfizer, for its part, said it was working with the Norwegian regulator to investigate the deaths in the country.
Earlier in the day, the Department of Health (DOH) said the emergency use authorization (EUA) issued by the FDA to Pfizer-BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccine will remain amid investigation that it caused the deaths of some senior citizens.
Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said the country’s FDA will evaluate Pfizer-BioNTech’s report regarding the incident, noting that the Norwegian government seemed to be saying that the deaths might have been coincidental because the patients were severely ill.
“For now, while there is still no sufficient evidence to say that [the deaths] are really caused by the vaccine, the EUA we had granted to Pfizer remains,” Vergeire told reporters in a press conference.
Vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr. previously said the Philippines will be more cautious in picking Covid-19 vaccines that will be administered to the elderly to avoid a similar incident once the state’s vaccination program begins.
Health officials have been careful in their response on the matter, especially since a recent survey by Pulse Asia found that nearly half of 47 percent of 2,400 Filipino respondents will reject Covid-19 vaccine even if it becomes available, as the majority of them are concerned about its safety.
The poll showed that concern about the safety of the vaccines is the primary reason for those who will reject it, apparently reeling from the Dengvaxia scare in 2017.
Years ago, the government stopped its nationwide dengue vaccination program and pulled Dengvaxia off the market after drugmaker Sanofi disclosed that those without prior infection are at risk of having “severe disease” if immunized with their vaccine.
Following the development in Norway, FDA director-general Eric Domingo said the state regulatory board can indicate in the EUA that the product cannot be given to the elderly and those with severe allergies.
An EUA allows the use of a vaccine that is still under development during a public health emergency.
“Before we can use that vaccine, we will add in the list of contraindications that it cannot be used for people with severe allergies and possibly to those who are really old,” Domingo said in an interview Sunday.
At press time, Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine, which touts a 95 percent efficacy rate, has the sole EUA in the Philippines.
Pfizer has developed a messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine, a cutting-edge technology which has never been approved by the FDA before the Covid-19 pandemic.
The vaccine delivers genetic information that allows the body’s own cells to produce a viral protein, which stimulates the immune system to mount a response, without posing any risk of infection.