Health dep’t firm on AstraZeneca use despite OCTA caution
The Department of Health (DOH) on Thursday said it would still provide health workers with the AstraZeneca vaccine, as the British-Swedish Covid-19 shot had not been conclusively found to be ineffective against the South Africa variant of the coronavirus.
The DOH and the World Health Organization (WHO) said the clinical trial in South Africa where the AstraZeneca vaccine’s efficacy against the B.1.351 variant went down from 70 percent to 10 percent had fewer than 2,000 participants.
“The sample is very small, less than 2,000, and these were among young individuals. The study is not yet peer-reviewed so the evidence is not yet complete for us to say [the decreased efficacy] will happen,” Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said in a briefing ahead of the arrival of 487,200 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from the WHO-led global vaccine pool Covax on Thursday night.
“No matter what the [trial] will say that the efficacy went down, so long as we don’t have certainty, we will continue to use the vaccine,” Vergeire added.
WHO representative Rabindra Abeyasinghe said the vaccine would help contain virus transmission, along with health measures.
“We still believe AstraZeneca vaccine is still effective even in places where you have a large proportion of cases that can be attributed to the B.1.351 variant or the South Africa variant,” he said.
“There is no evidence of large scale presence of this variant in the Philippines, ” Abeyasinghe added.
“We have a window of opportunity to ensure that we protect as many people as possible,” he said.
The OCTA Research Group of the University of the Philippines and University of Santo Tomas on Wednesday cautioned against using AstraZeneca due to the findings of its low efficacy against the South Africa variant.
Citing that study, the research group said CoronaVac, the Covid-19 vaccine of the Chinese pharmaceutical company Sinovac Biotech rolled out on Monday, could give better protection against the South Africa variant.
Vergeire, however, said Sinovac had not yet studied whether its vaccine was effective against the highly contagious South Africa and UK variants.
“So we can’t comment on that because we have no evidence on that,” she said.
Abeyasinghe said the WHO was still evaluating CoronaVac so he could not comment on its safety and efficacy. “So in the meantime we follow the guidelines spelled out by the regulatory body (Food and Drug Administration) and advocated by the DOH,” he said.
The DOH, meanwhile, said it would wait for its counterparts in Hong Kong and South Korea to complete their investigation into the deaths of at least three people who were given the Sinovac and AstraZeneca vaccines.
Abeyasinghe said the WHO had committed to deliver up to 4.58 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to the Philippines by May.
The first batch of 487,200 doses of the vaccine arrived in Manila on Thursday evening. Government officials led by President Duterte took delivery of the vaccines during a ceremony at Villamor Air Base.
But officials said that even with the addition of the AstraZeneca shots to the 600,000 doses of CoronaVac now being distributed by the government, the country’s stock was still short of its goal of inoculating more than 1 million health workers, of whom 8,559 had received the China-made shot as of Wednesday.
In a speech in Valenzuela City on Thursday, President Duterte said China would donate 400,000 doses more of CoronaVac, raising its donation to 1 million doses.
He said he would allow the economy to be reopened and students to go back to school when Filipinos started to line up in droves to be vaccinated.
Dr. Edsel Salvana, an infectious disease expert who advises the government on vaccine allocation, said the interim National Immunization Technical Advisory Group (NITAG) was to meet on Thursday to decide the AstraZeneca allocation.
Each AstraZeneca vial contains 10 doses, which means vaccinators must ensure 10 people are ready to receive the shots to avoid wastage.
In a news briefing, Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said a decision to allocate the AstraZeneca vaccines to older health workers or to elderly members of the general population would depend on the advisory group’s recommendation.
Marikina City Mayor Marcelino Teodoro on Thursday appealed to the NITAG to consider expanding the vaccine coverage to include economic front-line workers and vulnerable elderly people.
“In Marikina, a lot of our senior citizens had preenlisted and they’re eligible so I’m appealing to the NITAG to consider them, too,” Teodoro said.
First in line to get the AstraZeneca vaccine are health workers in government-run hospitals in Metro Manila.
“We will give our medical front-liners the option to choose [between Sinovac and AstraZeneca],” presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said.
The health workers are hesitant to take the China-made vaccine because of its low efficacy rate of 50.4 percent among high-risk groups like them. Many have expressed preference for the Pfizer vaccine.
Roque appealed to them to heed the advice of health experts that “the best vaccine is the available vaccine.”
Next on the government’s priority list are elderly people. Roque said vaccines intended for health workers who would decline to take them might be given to senior citizens.
Made in South Korea
The National Task Force Against Covid-19 said the Philippines’ share of the AstraZeneca vaccine came from the pledges of Germany, Norway, France, Italy, Spain, Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium and Greece to Covax.
In a television interview, task force chief Carlito Galvez Jr. said the first batch of AstraZeneca vaccine was manufactured in South Korea before being “consolidated” into the stock at AstraZeneca headquarters in Belgium.
From Brussels, a KLM Royal Dutch plane flew the vaccines to Manila via Bangkok. From Ninoy Aquino International Airport, the vaccines were transported to Villamor Air Base to be officially delivered to the Philippine government, then taken on refrigerated vans to Marikina City for storage in MetroPac Movers Inc., a cold-storage provider for the DOH.
The vaccines did not come with the .5 cc syringes used in administering AstraZeneca shots.
With close to 600,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 12,000 deaths, the Philippines is battling one of the toughest coronavirus epidemics in Asia.
On Thursday, the DOH reported 2,452 additional coronavirus infections, bringing the overall number of confirmed cases in the country to 584,667.
It said 15 more patients had died, raising the death toll to 12,404. But 266 other patients had recovered, pushing the total number of COVID-19 survivors to 535,037.
The deaths and recoveries left the country with 37,226 active cases, of which 90.1 percent were mild, 4.9 percent asymptomatic, 0.81 percent moderate, 2.1 percent severe, and 2.1 percent critical. —WITH REPORTS FROM MARICAR CINCO, JEROME ANING AND CATHRINE GONZALES
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