MANILA ⸺ The Philippines kicked off its COVID-19 vaccination programme on Monday, with health workers the first to be inoculated in a delayed campaign as the country tries to secure supplies to address one of Asia’s most stubborn coronavirus epidemics.
Healthcare workers in six government hospitals in the capital region received Sinovac Biotech vaccines donated by China on Sunday, the only doses the Philippines has received so far.
“You truly are the heroes during this time of the pandemic so it is just right that you be the first in line to receive the vaccines,” Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque told health workers.
The Philippines has reported 576,352 COVID-19 cases overall, including infections with the more infectious British coronavirus variant. It has recorded 12,318 deaths.
It aims this year to inoculate 70 million of its 108 million people to achieve herd immunity and reopen an economy that in 2020 saw its worst contraction on record, due largely to tight restrictions on movement in place since mid-March.
The Philippines is playing catchup with its Southeast Asian neighbours despite having one of the region’s worst coronavirus problems.
It was the last to start its immunisation programme and has a challenge not only to ensure supply of vaccines, but to convince its people to take them, amid concerns over safety.
Carlito Galvez, the former general who heads the government’s vaccine strategy, said the Philippines might not move forward unless everyone is immunised.
“It is our moral obligation,” said Galvez, who received his injection live on television and said the vaccines were “doses of hope”.
The government has been in talks with most major manufacturers of coronavirus vaccines for a combined 161 million doses but has struggled to conclude deals, while stiff competition has tightened supply.
The programme’s launch has been delayed several times, with the latest setback a delay to the 525,600 doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine that were supposed to arrive on Monday.
Reporting by Karen Lema and Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Martin Petty; Reuters