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The Philippines begins its inoculation campaign, but public distrust runs deep. | Press "Enter" to skip to content

The Philippines begins its inoculation campaign, but public distrust runs deep.

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MANILA — The Philippines, which has had one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in Southeast Asia, began its inoculation campaign on Monday even as the government struggled to reassure a population wary of foreign-made vaccines.

President Rodrigo Duterte on Sunday urged the public to get vaccinated as he greeted a Chinese military aircraft carrying 600,000 doses of the vaccine developed by Sinovac, a private Chinese company. The Philippines, a nation of more than 100 million, is among the last Southeast Asian countries to receive any coronavirus shots but aims to vaccinate 70 million people this year.

“To my fellow Filipinos, please set your fears aside,” Mr. Duterte said. “These vaccines are backed by science and deliberated on by our experts.”

But the president, 75, did not say whether he would receive the Chinese vaccine, saying he was waiting for advice from his doctor. Philippine regulators, who issued emergency-use authorization for the Sinovac shots last week, recommended that it not be administered to health workers or people 60 and older, citing uncertainty over its efficacy rate among those groups.

In an effort to improve confidence, a group of cabinet officials, health care workers and others were publicly vaccinated at six hospitals in metropolitan Manila on Monday, the Department of Health said on Twitter.

The Philippines has secured 25 million doses of the Sinovac vaccine to be delivered by the end of the year. Regulators have also approved the Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines, but the first Pfizer doses are not expected to arrive until later this year, and more than 500,000 of the AstraZeneca shots expected to arrive on Monday have been delayed, officials said.

Mr. Duterte has accused wealthy Western nations of blocking countries like the Philippines from securing the doses they need.

Also on Monday, the Philippine government said that Sinopharm, a Chinese state-owned company, had applied for emergency-use authorization for its coronavirus vaccine.

But recent surveys have shown that almost half of Filipinos are unwilling to receive any coronavirus vaccine, mostly because of safety concerns. At a protest on Friday, employees of Philippine General Hospital in Manila expressed doubts about the Sinovac vaccine, which has been shown in studies to have an efficacy rate of just over 50 percent among health workers, compared with over 90 percent for the Pfizer vaccine.

On Monday, they demanded that the Sinovac vaccine undergo another appraisal by a government panel after being granted a last-minute emergency approval.

Vaccine hesitancy in the Philippines also stems from an earlier vaccine scare. In 2017, a dengue immunization program was suspended after shots developed by the French drugmaker Sanofi were found in rare cases to provoke a severe form of the disease. By the time the program was halted, more than 830,000 children had been inoculated, and the vaccine has been linked to dozens of deaths.

Health workers and officials say the Dengvaxia scandal often comes up in conversations with those reluctant to receive a coronavirus vaccine. Dr. Joshua San Pedro, co-chairman of the Coalition for People’s Right to Health, said there was “lingering distrust and trauma” from the episode.

“We must dialogue with the people, especially those who remain alienated by a health system seemingly only for the privileged,” he said.

Gwen Palafox Yamamoto, mayor of the northern town of Bani in Pangasinan Province, said many worried that the new vaccines had not been sufficiently tested.

“We have been explaining the benefits of the vaccine and how this can help bring back normalcy to their lives,” she said. “They dismiss Covid-19 as just a simple fever, and would rather take their chances than die from an unproven vaccine.”

It does not help that many are wary about vaccines developed by China, which has a complicated relationship with the Philippines that includes a territorial dispute in the South China Sea.

“They just do not want a ‘made in China’ tag,” Ms. Yamamoto said.


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