On the first day of the Chinese CoronaVac rollout, the government has decided to have some of its officials take the first shots in six sites spread all over Metro Manila to allay fears and boost public confidence in the safety and efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines.
Among government officials who took the first vaccine shots on Monday morning were Vaccine czar Carlito Galvez, Testing czar Vince Dizon, Dr. Eric Domingo of the Food and Drug Administration, Chair Benhur Abalos of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, and Dr. Gerardo Legazpi of the Philippine General Hospital (PGH).
Aside from Galvez and Dizon who both hold secretary positions in President Rodrigo Duterte’s Cabinet, no other member of the Official Family was inoculated yesterday.
The Chief Executive, who is 75-years-old and has comorbidities, also skipped the line pending a green light from his physician.
Others who were administered shots were Health Assistant Secretary Elmer Punzalan and Dr. Alfonso Victorino Famaran Jr., of Dr. Jose N. Rodriguez Memorial Hospital in Caloocan.
Philippine National Police Director PBGen Luisito Magnaye of the PNP Health Service also received a shot.
They all took CoronaVac from China-based drug maker Sinovac Biotech, which arrived Sunday to a warm welcome by government officials led by President Duterte.
The Sinovac jab is an inactivated virus vaccine which is a similar technology used in polio, measles, and rubella vaccines. Its estimated efficacy rate of 92 percent among healthy individuals in Turkey is also very high.
Tests conducted in Brazil, with most health workers as participants, resulted in only a 50.4 percent efficacy rate that led to a poor reception even from the local health workers who are in the priority list of the government’s vaccine drive.
End the fight
Last year, Abalos tested positive for Covid-19 after his parents contracted the disease. “Don’t let yourself remain unvaccinated. The more individuals who will be inoculated, the earlier our fight against this disease will end,” he said.
Senator Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go said these officials took the first shots in the wake of calls of various sectors, including senators Imee Marcos and Risa Hontiveros who feared that the rollout might suffer a snag if the government turned a blind eye on the high rate of hesitancy among Filipinos.
“We are doing this not because we are the priority,” said Go said in a Sunday radio interview. “We are doing this to tell the public to trust the vaccine.”
Go said that only the success of the vaccination program can restore normality in the country. “Let us not fear the vaccines, let us fear Covid-19,” he said.
The first order of business, according to Marcos, is to convince Filipinos to get vaccinated.
As of 5 p.m. Monday, the government has not released the number of people who took the vaccines.
“Let’s make the best use of this endless vaccine delays and persuade our people, for their health and the safety of their family and friends, that they should get inoculated as quickly as possible with any FDA-approved vaccine,” she said in a press statement.
Next to Coronavac, 525,600 doses AstraZeneca vaccines were supposed to arrive Monday, but government officials said the scheduled arrival was moved to next week because of a supply problem.
“There is so much anxiety about side effects which are apparently rare and minimal — when the danger of infection is real and could be fatal. Any vaccination effort will fail with 46 percent to 47 percent of Filipinos skeptical or even against any Covid vaccines. Without a thorough information campaign preceding it, (the rollout) will just go to waste,” she said.
Marcos said the public is also at a loss on what benefits they are entitled to in case of injury or death. To elicit a more positive response to vaccination, the government must clarify its indemnification policy and how the P500-million budget for this will be spent,” the senator added.
Marcos said the government’s information campaign can tap influencers from the health sector to showbiz, adding that the private sector can also be engaged to offer incentives to employees taking the jab, while respecting their freedom of choice.
Vaccine hesitancy is not just a Philippine predicament, Marcos emphasized, citing the higher hesitancy rate of 58 percent in France, based on a survey by leading French newspaper Le Figaro.
Hontiveros said the high rate of vaccine hesitancy among Filipinos attended the arrival Sunday of the country’s first batch of 600,000 doses of Sinovac from China, noting that there were calls for more choices among health workers. In various radio interviews, so many people said they preferred another brand.
“Now, the challenge of vaccine hesitancy remains to be one of the biggest threats to our health and economy,” Hontiveros said. “The DoH and IATF must treat vaccine hesitancy as a public health emergency. Our efforts will be in vain if no one wants to get vaccinated.”
Galvez, Roque, Abalos, Legaspi, and other PGH medical frontline health care workers took their shots inside PGH in Manila.
Dizon took his at the Caloocan hospital once called Tala Leprosarium. He initially experienced some discomfort after his blood pressure slightly rose, but he eventually pushed through with the vaccination.
Caloocan City Mayor Oca Malapitan was at the hospital to witness the first day of the Covid-19 vaccination rollout where hospital staff will be also vaccinated. Although he was willing to join the first batch, the mayor is now a senior citizen and was among those advised against it.
“Even if we want to, we must follow the guidelines of the national government, may the next time the vaccine arrives I will be able to get vaccinated to encourage the people of Caloocan to get vaccinated as well,” he said.
Once Duterte’s physician recommended a vaccine, the President said he would take it, and Senator Go said he would join him.
Go said he and the President are willing to be vaccinated in public to demonstrate the vaccines’ safety and efficacy.
“It’s not a question anymore if the President is willing to be vaccinated in public or not because we all want to be vaccinated,” Go said.
“We will do it together in public. We are just waiting for his doctor to say which of the vaccine brands is best suited for the president, given his age and health,” he added.
The Philippines, which has the second-highest number of Covid-19 cases in Southeast Asia next to Indonesia, is the last country that received an authorized jab in the region.
China’s Sinovac shipped 600,000 shots of coronavirus vaccines on Sunday, of which 100,000 doses are reserved for the military.
Aside from PGH and the Caloocan hospital, other hospitals including military hospital V. Luna Medical Center, the Pasig City General Hospital, the Philippine National Police General Hospital in Camp Crame, and the Lung Center of the Philippines received vaccines from Sinovac.
The FDA has cautioned in using Sinovac vaccines on health care workers due to its 50.4 percent efficacy rate in its Brazil trial which included medical professionals directly exposed to Covid-19 patients.
The government aims to vaccinate some 50 to 70 million Filipinos by the end of the year if supplies arrive on time.
with Alvin Murcia,
AND Cherk Balagtas