MANILA— The COVID-19 vaccine made by China's Sinovac is not at all useless in preventing coronavirus infections, the Department of Health (DOH) said Saturday, as criticism against the vaccine's low efficacy rating mounted among health workers.
Medical groups earlier blasted the health officials' supposed "double standards" in recommending Sinovac's shots to medical workers not directly handling COVID-19 patients, noting that the vaccine should not at all be used on them.
But in a public briefing, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said health experts approved the use of Sinovac's COVID-19 shots in the country based on science and evidence.
"Hindi po walang kuwentang bakuna itong Sinovac para sabihin natin na kasi hindi puwede sa health workers, ibibigay natin sa iba," said Vergeire.
(Sinovac's COVID-19 vaccine is not at all useless when we said we refused to give it to healthworkers.)
"Itong parating na bakuna ng Sinovac, kung tingnan po natin sa kabuuan, this can lessen your chances of having severe infection by as much as 75 percent... and it can lessen your chances of being hospitalized and dying. At sa tingin ko 'yun pa lang po na factor na 'yun... ay napakalaking tulong na po sa health care workers," she explained.
(This vaccine, if we will look at it as a whole, can lessen your chances of having severe infection by as much as 75 percent... and it can lessen your chances of being hospitalized and dying. I think that factor alone is a huge help to health care workers.)
Studies done in Brazil showed that Sinovac's vaccine only has 50.4% efficacy rate on health workers, the FDA earlier said, which is why it said it was not recommending its use on frontline medical workers directly dealing with COVID-19 patients.
On Friday, the interim National Immunization Technical Advisory Group (NITAG) recommended the use of Sinovac for heath workers, despite reservations by the FDA.
Vergeire, meanwhile, said this does not mean that the health department is discriminating based on the medical frontliners' roles.
"Wala po tayong sini-sino, lahat po pantay-pantay... mayroon lang po tayong pina-prioritize sa populasyon ngayon who are at most risk para mabigyan muna nitong bakuna."
(We are not singling out anyone, everyone is equal. There are just some people we must prioritize in our population as of now that need this vaccine.)
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Malacañang earlier in the day reiterated that health workers may decline to be vaccinated with jabs from Sinovac without affecting their priority status.
“Pero pang health care workers lang po 'yan. Sa lahat po, kinakailangan pa rin talaga kung ano ang naririyan ay tatanggapin natin. Kung ayaw naman po ay wala talagang sapilitan,” he said.
(But that is only for health care workers. For the rest, we must accept whatever is available. They will not be forced if they still decline.)
The association of doctors from the Philippine General Hospital, the first recipient of the country's first-ever batch of Sinovac's COVID-19 vaccine, said they were shocked upon learning that they will be inoculated with the shots.
In a statement, the PGH Physicians' Association pointed out that the development was met by a 95-percent disapproval rate among the hospital's residents and fellows, given the vaccine's low efficacy.
"We recognize the efforts of the PGH Administration in hastening the vaccination process for its constituents. However, the vaccination plan should have been handled with more prudence and transparency," the statement read.
The physicians also pushed for the vaccine's further screening by the country's Health Technology Assessment Council "to facilitate individual informed decision-making" before its inoculation to health workers.
HTAC is an advisory committee that evaluates a drug's cost-effectiveness, risks and benefits, among others.
The committee also assesses a medicine's ethical and social implications.
The HTAC earlier said, however, that the initial batch of Sinovac's vaccine could not be assessed because they were donated by Beijing and not procured by government funds.
The batch does not fall under the council's assessment for now, HTAC said.
President Rodrigo Duterte and some of his cabinet members are expected to welcome the arrival of the first batch of Sinovac vaccines on Sunday.
“Excited na kami dahil bukas ay darating na po ang bakuna. Personal na sasalubungin ng ating presidente ang unang batch ng COVID vaccines na mula China,” Roque said.
(We’re all excited because the vaccine will arrive tomorrow. The President will personally welcome the first batch of COVID vaccines from China.)
The Philippines has lagged behind its Southeast Asian neighbors in beginning COVID-19 vaccinations while having the second-highest number of cases in the region.