The Philippines plans to begin a mass COVID-19 vaccination program this month, although the government said Thursday its initial February 15 start date is now in question due to delivery delays.
Vince Dizon, the government’s appointed testing czar, said there have been “slight delays” in the deliveries of 117,000 doses of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines, because the country’s health department is still processing documents.
Dizon said the government expects to receive the first batch of vaccines “within February.” Officials had said earlier this week they expected to receive deliveries at the start of next week.
The government has agreed to procure an initial batch of vaccines from Pfizer and AstraZeneca through the World Health Organization’s COVAX program, which aims to ensure access to vaccines for poorer countries.
WHO Philippines representative Rabindra Abeyasinghe said that while the Philippines is missing some documents to schedule the vaccine shipment, there has been “no delay” in the delivery of vaccines, according to CNN Philippines.
Abeyasinghe said Thursday that Health Secretary Francisco Duque had said the required papers would be sent to COVAX within the day, after which vaccines could be delivered “as early as next week.”
Duque was slammed in December for failing to quickly secure vaccine deals and was left to defend himself against allegations he had bungled the opportunity to have vaccines delivered by January.
The embattled health secretary said in November the country could achieve herd immunity by vaccinating around 60 percent of its population – around 60 to 70 million people – within the next three years.
The government has more recently said it aims to inoculate 70 million adults this year, starting with frontline health workers.
That goal may be overly ambitious, according to a recent report by the Economist Intelligence Unit that projects over 85 poor countries, including the Philippines, will not achieve widespread vaccination coverage until early 2023 – if at all.
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said Thursday the Philippines will receive 600,000 doses of China’s Sinovac Biotech COVID-19 vaccine this month, which will be used to inoculate members of the military.
Roque said the vaccines will arrive by February 23, although they will not be administered without being approved by the country’s Food and Drug Administration. Only the Pfizer and AstraZeneca shots have been approved for emergency use in the Philippines.
But Roque also said Thursday that Duterte’s security group had been issued a “compassionate special permit” by the FDA to receive vaccines manufactured by fellow Chinese firm Sinopharm.
The Philippines is likely to be a major field of play in the realm of “vaccine diplomacy” as China and Russia attempt to curry favor within the strategically important longtime U.S. ally.
Controversy over Chinese vaccines erupted last month when it was revealed that members of President Rodrigo Duterte’s security detail had received “smuggled” Chinese vaccines, despite them not having been approved for use.
Chinese workers in the Philippines’ online gambling industry have also received shots, part of what has become a thriving black market for illegal vaccines.
The vaccine rollout has also brought back memories of the 2016 Dengvaxia scandal, during which a dengue vaccine was administered to more than 800,000 children only to be banned after its maker, the French company Sanofi, said the vaccine could increase the severity of infections in recipients who had never been exposed to dengue.
The controversy caused public trust in vaccines to plummet, along with immunization rates in children.
The government also faces a tall order in delivering vaccines to the country’s many remote islands. Part of its plan is to allow local governments to buy COVID-19 vaccines directly from manufacturers, which has the support of Duterte but is strongly opposed by health experts.