Healthcare workers from six government hospitals in the National Capital Region (NCR) received Sinovac Biotech vaccines Monday, March 1, marking the start of the coronavirus vaccination program in the Philippines.
“You truly are the heroes during this time of the pandemic so it is just right that you be the first in line to receive the vaccines,” Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque told health workers.
The Philippines received its first shipment of coronavirus vaccines Sunday, Feb. 28, with the arrival of 600,000 doses of the vaccine donated by the Chinese government and made by the Chinese biopharmaceutical company, Sinovac Biotech.
The Philippines has reported 576,381 cases of coronavirus as of writing, including infections with the more infectious British coronavirus variant, and has recorded 12,322 deaths.
It aims to inoculate 70 million of its 109 million people this year to achieve herd immunity and revive an ailing economy.
Carlito Galvez, a retired army general who heads the government’s vaccine strategy, said the Philippines might not move forward unless everyone is immunized.
“It is our moral obligation,” said Galvez, who received his injection live on television and said the vaccines were “doses of hope.”
The country was the last to begin its immunization program among Southeast Asian countries. Its vaccination program has been delayed several times, with the latest setback a delay to the 525,600 doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine that were supposed to arrive on March 1.
AstraZeneca, Pfizer-BioNTech want indemnification clauses included in sales agreements
Makers of the other approved vaccines – AstraZeneca and Pfizer-BioNTech – wanted indemnification clauses included in their sales agreements with the Philippines. With an indemnification clause in the sales agreement, the companies would be free of liabilities resulting from any adverse consequences of using their vaccines. (Related: Jabbed at your own risk: Coronavirus vaccine manufacturers to be EXEMPT from liability claims in most countries.)
They were apparently afraid of suffering the same fate as the French drug company Sanofi.
Three Sanofi executives were ordered arrested by a Quezon City court after they failed to appear for an arraignment hearing on Jan. 27 in a case related to the rollout several years ago of the company’s dengue drug, Dengvaxia – a vaccination campaign that allegedly resulted in the deaths of several children dating as far back as 2016.
The Paris-based Sanofi executives have been charged with “reckless imprudence resulting in homicide.”
“The industry is saying: I have to be protected. I don’t want to be ‘Sanofied,’” said Dr. Kenneth Hartigan-Go, a non-resident research fellow at the Ateneo School of Government and former health undersecretary.
Hartigan-Go is one of the former and current health officials facing charges in the Dengvaxia case along with the Sanofi executives.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon noted how drug companies “suddenly required” an indemnification clause following news of the arrest orders. Drilon told ABS-CBN News that Pfizer and AstraZeneca “have submitted indemnification forms to the Philippines” and are awaiting signatures.
Under the World Health Organization‘s Covax facility for lower-income countries, the Philippines would receive 5.5 million doses from AstraZeneca and 117,000 doses from Pfizer-BioNTech.
Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles related to online news service OneNews that the government had almost concluded negotiations with the two companies when they added the indemnification clause requirements. He said the government was “under the impression” that such clauses were not necessary.
The Philippines did not sign an indemnification clause with Sinovac Biotech.
Majority of Filipinos not willing to get inoculated against coronavirus
The indemnification clause requirements could further damage the public’s trust in vaccines, which had already been dented by the Dengvaxia case.
That controversial case prompted hearings in both chambers of Congress from 2016 to 2018, during which Philippine health officials and drug company executives were summoned.
Sanofi’s French representative in Manila was forced to apologize for any “misunderstanding” when he had said there was no reason for alarm over Dengvaxia even when Sanofi’s own report stated that the drug could have adverse effects when administered to people who had never had dengue.
Families stepped forward to claim their children had died after receiving a Dengvaxia jab, a narrative pushed by the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) during the hearings. There were also reports that health officials advocated the use of Dengvaxia in exchange for commissions and kickbacks.
Memories of the Dengvaxia case still lingered among many Filipinos.
“Many kids got sick after receiving that vaccine,” said 62-year-old Crisanta Alipio. She said she was afraid of the coronavirus but even more afraid of vaccination.
Government officials acknowledged the difficulties. “Messaging has to be very concrete and evidence-based to encourage people to receive the vaccines,” Health Undersecretary Rosario Vergeire said.
Dr. Charles Yu, a pulmonologist, said that the public should not fear China’s coronavirus vaccines because they are based on inactivated virus particles, a method that “has a track record for safety.”
One opinion poll showed less than one-third of Filipinos were willing to get inoculated against coronavirus. (Related: More than half of Americans don’t want COVID-19 vaccine, survey shows.)
“Vaccination programs will go to waste if people refuse to get the shots,” said former Health Secretary Esperanza Cabral.
Apasrah Mapupuno, the head of the government’s Lanao del Sur health team, said she had asked dozens of health workers and others if they would roll up their sleeves for a coronavirus vaccine.
Not one said “yes.”
“That is the big problem,” Mapupuno said. “How can the health workers convince the community to get vaccinated if they themselves are not sold on COVID-19 vaccines?”
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