MANILA — For their huge sacrifice, health workers should be prioritized for COVID-19 vaccination using doses from the COVAX facility, the World Health Organization said Thursday as the Philippines is set to accept its first batch from the global vaccine-sharing platform.
The COVAX Facility, of which WHO is a member, is a vaccine-sharing initiative that aims for equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.
While vaccines from China's Sinovac have already been used to inoculate health workers, WHO Country Representative Rabindra Abeyasinghe said the 487,000 AstraZeneca vaccines arriving in the Philippines Thursday evening and those expected to be delivered soon should be earmarked for those most at risk, such as health workers.
“We recognize that the last year has been challenging for everybody, but we need to acknowledge that possibly the largest sacrifice has been made by health care workers, not only by putting themselves at risk, but also their immediate families,” he said. “So it is our duty to provide protection to them.”
He explained that having health workers protected would ensure the efficient treatment of patients.
Abeyasinghe said the “prioritization is not something that WHO is planning to police” but he did add, “If we want to ensure that we continue to access the vaccines from the COVAX facility, we need to demonstrate that we can follow this prioritization, we can offer protection to the most vulnerable, most at risk in a prioritized way.”
He emphasized the huge demand for vaccines in all countries and how everybody feels at risk, but that it’s “a matter of relative risk.”
As of March 1, a total of 14,874 health workers have been infected with COVID-19 in the Philippines, among whom 82 died. There are, meanwhile, 121 active cases.
Abeyasinghe refused to directly respond whether COVAX would stop sending vaccines to the Philippines if it does not prioritize health workers for vaccination.
But he said, “If we cannot demonstrate that we are following this prioritization, unfortunately, the COVAX may have to consider other options where the impact of the vaccine rollout will be more useful and practical and will contribute to saving more lives.”
He specifically pointed out that the WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE) already identified health workers as most at risk for COVID-19. He also urged everyone to “respect the prioritization” that will be determined by the Department of Health and the National Immunization Technical Advisory Group (NITAG) in consultation with them.
DOH Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said they are meeting with NITAG on Thursday to discuss the allocation of the AstraZeneca vaccines.
Access to COVID-19 vaccines has long been a problem for the Philippines, which has lagged behind its neighbors in Asia in starting the rollout of vaccines.
Last year, there were reports that some officials and members of the Presidential Security Group received smuggled COVID-19 vaccines.
Malacañang also recently revealed that the NITAG rejected the proposal of the Inter-Agency Task Force on COVID-19 response to allot coronavirus shots for "influencers" who might help boost the public's vaccine confidence.”
Dr. Beverly Ho, director of the DOH Health Promotion Bureau, also told media on Thursday morning that with the current segment of the population being prioritized for vaccination, it may be more helpful to have “health care worker influencers” vaccinated.
She explained health workers are also more convinced with medical evidence and the decision of other health professionals to be vaccinated as in the case of the Sinovac roll-out.
The WHO said the Philippines will receive 4.5 million doses of AstraZeneca's coronavirus jabs from March until May, becoming one of the largest recipients of vaccines through the COVAX facility.