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Astra vaccine drive kicks off despite fears

Therefore, the experts are saying that [one opinion] is not conclusive and there is no adequate evidence for us to say AstraZeneca will not be effective against this variant.

MJ Blancaflor



The Philippines on Saturday began the rollout of coronavirus vaccines developed by AstraZeneca, with the Department of Health (DoH) rejecting claims that the brand is ineffective against Covid-19’s South Africa variant.

Some scientists have expressed fears that the 17 million AstraZeneca vaccine doses procured by the government and the private sector, as well as some 400,000 more donated to the Philippines, might go to waste if the government won’t contain South Africa variant which reportedly weakens the jab’s efficacy.

Health undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said the DoH adheres to the recommendation of the World Health Organization (WHO) to use the vaccine even in places with reported cases of the South Africa variant, also known as B.1.351.

“The public should understand that those people talking like this are basing their assumptions on just one study, wherein there is a very small population that was studied on,” Vergeire told radio station dzBB.

“Therefore, the experts are saying that (one opinion) is not conclusive and there is no adequate evidence for us to say AstraZeneca will not be effective against this variant,” she added.

Ospital ng Parañaque District 2 was the first hospital in the Philippines to use the AstraZeneca vaccines on Saturday.

The kickoff was led by vaccine czar Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr.

Maria Paz Corrales, assistant director of DoH office in Metro Manila, said that 200 doses of AstraZeneca vaccine were given to the hospital.

The first health worker who received the jab was Parañaque City Health Officer Dra. Olga Virtucio.

The WHO has earlier stood firm that the AstraZeneca vaccine remains effective in preventing deaths and severe conditions caused by Covid-19’s South Africa variant.

WHO Representative to the Philippines Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe said the international body is reviewing the speculations “very carefully,” but noted that the study cited by critics was conducted on a “very limited scale” with a sample of fewer than 2,000 people.

“What it showed was that there was evidence of mild and moderate disease following AstraZeneca vaccines. Of course, as I’ve mentioned, the purpose of the vaccine is to prevent disease and deaths,” he said in a briefing Thursday.

Molecular biologist and OCTA Research fellow Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, O.P. claimed that the AstraZeneca jab is “no different (from) injecting water” into Covid-19 patients with the South Africa variant, citing a study in February which purportedly showed that the efficacy rate of AstraZeneca’s vaccine decreased from 70 percent to 10 percent against the virus type.

Austriaco also said an additional bolster shot of AstraZeneca is needed to fight off the “SuperCovid” variant in South Africa, commonly known as B.1.351.

It means a person will need three doses of AstraZeneca vaccine instead of the usual two doses.

“Our national vaccine strategy that has just begun we have already been hit in the stomach by a variant, that if uncontrolled and not eliminated from the islands, will severely impact (our vaccination campaign),” Austriaco told reporters in a news conference.

“If we do not eliminate the B.1.351 variant identified yesterday in Pasay, the 17 million doses of AstraZeneca that we have already bought and have not yet arrived will be ineffective in fighting this particular variant from South Africa,” he said.

At least 49 countries have so far reported cases of the B.1351 variant, including the Philippines.

Some 487,700 doses of AstraZeneca vaccines arrived in the country Thursday evening via the global vaccine-sharing pool COVAX Facility.

Galvez, who is also the chief implementer of the national action plan against Covid-19, said that the additional 38,400 vaccine doses would arrive aboard a commercial flight on Sunday.

More than 13,000 individuals who have been vaccinated against Covid-19 and 61 “adverse events” occurred since the national vaccination program began on 1 March, according to the health department.

Meanwhile, DoH’s Vergeire said the recent spike in coronavirus infections in the Philippines is due to the public’s failure to comply with health protocols and the presence of more transmissible variants were just “aggravating factors.”

“We need to change public perception about this. Yes, we have detected variants but we need to also see that we did not comply with health protocols.

So, if we see continuous violations of health guidance, definitely, the cases will rise. And the variants are just aggravating factors,” she said.

On Friday, health authorities detected 52 cases of the South African variant, bringing the caseload to 58 after recording the first 6 cases earlier in the week.

Among the newly-tallied cases of the South African variant, 41 were detected in Metro Manila.

There are also a total of 118 cases of the United Kingdom variant, while the country has also tallied 42 Covid-19 positive patients with mutations of “potential clinical significance.”

On Saturday the Philippines recorded the highest single-day tally of cases since October, with 3,439 additional cases. The new infections pushed the total to 591,138.

This is the second consecutive day that the country reported more than 3,000 infections in a day. On Friday, the DoH reported 3,045 new cases.

OCTA research on Saturday noted a “very quick” surge in the capital region within a short period, accounting for an average of 900 cases per day from 26 February to 4 March.

Some hospitals have also noted more patients coming in, but Vergeire said “nothing is controllable,” saying they have prepared hospitals for an expected surge as early as November.

Vergeire said the localized response in cities and towns may do for now, but later on said that they will not discount recommending more stringent measures to control virus transmission.