Unease and confusion
Norway shook the global community with a report that 33 of its elderly citizens had died shortly after getting inoculated with the COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer-BioNTech. While Camilla Stoltenberg, director of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, stressed that a direct causal link between the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and those who died, who were “elderly, frail, and had serious diseases,” is “not a given,” the development has nevertheless jacked up widespread concerns over the safety of vaccines that had been developed at breakneck speed in an attempt to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
The news from faraway Norway also has enormous implications in the Philippines, where Pfizer is so far the only vaccine company granted emergency use authorization (EUA) by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA has demanded that Pfizer shed light on the deaths being associated with its vaccine, and FDA director general Rolando Domingo said the EUA, which was issued on Jan. 14 and allows the distribution and use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in the Philippines, would be revised or even revoked “at any time” depending on how safety concerns are addressed. The first Europe-wide safety report on the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is expected be published at the end of this month.
Countries like the Philippines are pinning their hopes of recovery from the public health and economic crises on COVID-19 vaccines. However, a Pulse Asia survey conducted between Nov. 23 and Dec. 2 last year revealed that almost half of Filipinos surveyed said they would not get a COVID-19 jab over safety fears.
President Duterte certainly did not help matters when he played medical expert and categorically linked the deaths in Norway to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which at this time is authorized for public use in over 40 countries including the United States and the European Union. “You senators want Pfizer? In Norway, 25 persons died after receiving Pfizer vaccination. Do you want it? We’ll order for you,” said Mr. Duterte sarcastically, addressing senators in a late Monday televised address. The Senate had been conducting hearings on the implementation of the administration’s nationwide vaccination program.
The President appeared to have no qualms flogging the Pfizer vaccine, which is said to have the highest efficacy rate among the available vaccines in the market at 95 percent, but has had only warm words for the China-made Sinovac vaccine, which has a much lower efficacy rate of just over 50 percent.
The FDA has yet to authorize the use of Sinovac in the country, but presidential spokesperson Harry Roque has practically become its most ardent salesman. The Chinese vaccine will be the only one available in the country from February until June, declared Roque; Filipinos should “not be choosy” and just get the Sinovac jabs since they use Made in China products in their everyday lives anyway, he said, completely serious.
“Vaccine czar” Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. also essentially vouched for Sinovac when he said the EUA for it will be issued next month, leading Sen. Panfilo Lacson to point out that while “stringent conditions have to be complied with before the FDA issues an EUA for a COVID-19 vaccine… the assurance made by Secretary Galvez that Sinovac will be approved before its supposed roll-out somehow sends an impression of undue preference for the Sinovac over other available vaccines.”
Galvez had initially refused to disclose the final negotiated price for Sinovac, saying only that “hindi tataas ng P700.” After much criticism of the Palace’s aversion to transparency and seeming disrespect for the public’s right to information, Roque claimed the Sinovac jabs cost only about P650 per dose, and then went on to brand as “fake news” the earlier price matrix from Sen. Sonny Angara’s showing Sinovac as the most expensive vaccine option. Angara, however, said the data came from the Department of Health itself.
Filipinos wary of the Pfizer and Sinovac vaccines may be relieved at the news that a number of local governments have opted to secure deals with another vaccine developer, the British drugmaker AstraZeneca. But, yet again, conflicting directives from the government may throw a monkey wrench at this initiative.
At one point, Mr. Duterte said the national government “won’t meddle” in the vaccine purchase of mayors and governors and that they were free to choose for themselves. But just days later, the Department of the Interior and Local Government thrashed that assurance: LGUs must buy just half of what they need, it said, so that the national government can supply the rest. That is a truly mind-boggling directive: Why would the national government still want to muscle in on the vaccination programs of well-off LGUs, when it should welcome the chance to conserve resources that can then be diverted to poorer LGUs unable to buy their own vaccines? What’s in it, as usual, for the top dogs?
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