MANILA (4th UPDATE) — More than a year since being hit with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Philippines on Sunday received its first official supply of vaccines that would jumpstart its inoculation drive against the coronavirus, courtesy of China's donation of 600,000 shots from Beijing-based drugmaker Sinovac Biotech.
A Chinese plane carrying the first batch of vaccines landed in Villamor Air Base at around 4 in the afternoon Sunday, according to state television network PTV.
“Ang laman po ng eroplano na 'yan ay pag-asa na makakabalik na tayo sa ating mga buhay dahil sa bakuna,” said Malacañang spokesman Harry Roque.
(That airplane is carrying hope that we can now return to our lives because of the vaccine.)
President Rodrigo Duterte, his former aide Sen. Christopher "Bong" Go, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, national COVID-19 task chief implementer and vaccine czar Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr., Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. and other Cabinet officials formally welcomed the country's initial vaccine supply at the airbase with Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian and other Chinese diplomats.
The military will get 100,000 doses from the donation and the rest will go to select health workers of the country, which has recorded 574,247 total COVID-19 cases as of Saturday and has lagged behind its Southeast Asian neighbors in securing the vaccines.
Roque meanwhile said the Philippines should be thankful for the vaccine donation.
“Ang importante rin nating ipakita, iyong ating pasasalamat at utang na loob sa ating mga kapatid na Tsino, na sa pinakamadilim na yugto ng ating kasaysayan, nakapagbigay tulong naman ang Tsina,” said Roque.
(It is important that we show our thanks and debt of gratitude to our Chinese brothers, that in the darkest chapter of our history, China gave help.)
Huang reiterated the safety and efficacy of SinoVac's CoronaVac jabs, saying they have been "well-tested" and used in many countries.
"I hope that the (Sinovac) vaccines will help kick off the Philippines's mass inoculation campaign to curb the pandemic and allow Filipinos to return to normal life at the earliest," he said in his speech at the welcome ceremony.
Huang added "this has demonstrated China's determination to fight the pandemic in the spirit of solidarity and build a community" with neighboring countries.
The interim National Immunization Technical Advisory Group (NITAG) on Friday announced it was recommending the administration of CoronaVac to health workers despite a 50.4 percent efficacy rate when it was given to medical frontliners exposed to COVID-19 during trials in Brazil.
Reports of smuggled doses and VIP vaccinations have hounded the country's delayed inoculation drive.
The government expects the bulk of the country's COVID-19 vaccines to arrive in the third and the fourth quarters of 2021.
Shots developed by Sinovac, Pfizer-BioNTech, and AstraZeneca have emergency use authorizations in the Philippines.
The country's drug regulator also allowed the "compassionate use" of 10,000 doses of Chinese state firm Sinopharm's COVID-19 vaccine for Duterte's security detail, many of whom received the same product as early as September last year.
Columnist Ramon Tulfo, Duterte's former special envoy to China, said he, some Cabinet officials, and a senator also took smuggled Sinopharm jabs.
The Philippines, which has recorded 12,289 deaths due to the infectious respiratory disease, logged its first COVID-19 case on Jan. 30 last year in a Chinese woman who arrived from Wuhan City, China where the virus is believed to have first emerged.
The pandemic, which triggered quarantine restrictions in the country beginning March last year, resulted in a -9.5 percent GDP growth for 2020.
It is the first contraction since 1998's 0.5 percent decline due to the Asian financial crisis and worse than the 7 percent contraction recorded in 1984, making it the steepest post-war slump in Philippine history, using available PSA data dating back to 1947.