MANILA — The interim National Immunization Technical Advisory Group (NITAG) on Friday announced it was recommending the use of the COVID-19 vaccine by Chinese company Sinovac for health workers, despite earlier reservations by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
This, as the first batch of the vaccine is set to arrive in the country on Sunday, with soldiers and health workers on the priority list of those to be inoculated.
On Monday, the FDA granted Sinovac its much-awaited emergency use authorization, but also said that the vaccine may not be suitable for health workers directly exposed to COVID-19 patients because of its 50.4% efficacy rating in a study in Brazil.
This prompted the DOH to consult the NITAG for its recommendation on how to distribute the vaccine given its lower efficacy among health workers and the current prioritization framework of the government.
“The DOH, the Food and Drug Administration and our panel of experts concurred that current available evidence is enough to establish that the vaccine is safe for use,” Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said during a briefing on Friday with members of the NITAG and the DOH Technical Advisory Group (TAG).
“NITAG and the TAG (technical advisory group) has deemed it sufficient to recommend the use of the vaccine for health care workers as it bears to reiterate that our goal for prioritizing health care workers for vaccination is to reduce morbidity and mortality among their group, while they maintain the most critical essential health services,” she added.
Vergeire said the NITAG already presented the recommendation to the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) on COVID-19 response.
“Just this morning we presented to the IATF and we got approval already. This will also be presented to the President,” she said.
This approval “is an assurance that the use of Sinovac is safe and beneficial to our healthcare workers,” said Palace spokesman Harry Roque.
“As we have said in many occasions, healthcare workers are the most critical frontliners in our fight against COVID-19 and they remain at the top of our priority list for vaccination,” Roque said in a statement.
“We are confident that many of our healthcare workers would get themselves inoculated to boost public confidence in our mass vaccination program against the coronavirus,” he added.
Sinovac’s COVID-19 vaccine will be the first to be rolled out in the Philippines. First in line are health workers in COVID-dedicated hospitals. Vergeire said they are still finalizing which hospitals will receive the jabs.
ALLOWED TO WAIT
The DOH and its advisory groups said that health workers may decline or choose to wait for another vaccine. It won’t affect their priority status.
However, Dr. Nina Castillo-Carandang said the health workers’ readiness to accept COVID-19 vaccines is expected to affect vaccine confidence among the general public.
“If health care workers are reluctant to accept vaccination then that also sends a signal to the general public. We'd like to offer this opportunity for health care workers, if they're willing to do so to have themselves vaccinated with Sinovac,” she said.
Castillo-Carandang said that while health workers may wait for another brand, there is no assurance when the next one would arrive.
Health workers have expressed concern over the reported low efficacy rate of the Sinovac vaccine.
Dr. Maria Consorcia Quizon, another NITAG member, said Sinovac is a “safe vaccine.”
“[Sinovac] is safe for use for health care workers. We need to protect them. Since ito ang available ngayon, kailangan nating gamitin para sa kanila (Since this is the one available now, then we must use it for them),” Quizon said.
Vergeire pointed out that safety and efficacy are measured separately and that studies have shown that Sinovac’s vaccine is safe.
Dr. John Wong, a member of the DOH TAG, said while the vaccine’s overall efficacy rate for health workers aged 18 to 59 was at around 50%, it has higher efficacy against more severe cases of the disease.
He said for moderate cases, the efficacy was at 72%, and for severe cases it was at 100%.
“If we had this vaccine last year in NCR, we could have averted 42 health worker deaths and averted 3,300 cases,” he said.
The FDA previously said that the vaccine, which used the traditional inactivated virus platform, only results in common vaccination side effects although more time is needed for observation.
Asked if the DOH will still wait for the recommendation of the Health Technology Assessment Council, an independent advisory group, a member of the NITAG said it is not necessary since the first batch of 600,000 Sinovac vaccine doses were donated.
Vergeire said the vaccines of Sinovac that will arrive on Sunday will be in single dose vials and will not require special syringes.