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MANILA, Philippines – A public health expert said that the Department of Health (DOH) could have expedited the approval of a second booster shot for those with comorbidities to lessen the wastage of COVID-19 vaccines in the agency’s stockpile.
“There was some element of delay on the part of the DOH to implement the second booster for those with comorbidities. They should have been included when the second booster for 60 years old and above, healthcare workers, and immunocompromised were approved,” infectious diseases specialist Dr. Rontgene Solante told Rappler in a phone interview on Tuesday, August 9.
“But then, the DOH only allowed it this July. This was the missed opportunity for us,” he added.
The Philippine government began rolling out second booster shots in late April for immunocompromised individuals or those with specific medical conditions. In May, the rollout was expanded the rollout to senior citizens and health workers.
Solante is part of the Philippines’ vaccine expert panel. He heads the adult infectious diseases and tropical medicine unit at San Lazaro Hospital, and is former president of the Philippine Society for Microbiology and Infectious Diseases.
Lawmakers from both the Senate and House of Representatives have called for each chamber to conduct an investigation into the expiration of millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses supposedly worth billions of pesos.
The progressive Makabayan bloc in the House filed a resolution on August 4, directing the House committee on health to investigate, in aid of legislation, the reported millions of expired vaccines.
Senator Risa Hontiveros also filed a similar resolution in the upper chamber on Monday, August 1.
“It is imperative for the government authorities to strive for less COVID-19 vaccine wastage, to accurately and transparently report vaccine wastage, identify drivers of wastage, and implement effective interventions to reduce it,” Hontiveros said.
Hontiveros claimed the value of the vaccine wastage reached P5 billion to P13 billion. The DOH has yet to give the total estimated cost of vaccine wastage in the country.
DOH: Vaccine wastage ‘normal’
In response, DOH officer-in-charge Maria Rosario Vergeire said that the agency was ready to answer queries regarding the government’s vaccine deployment. She pointed out that vaccine wastage is normal in any vaccination program.
Vergeire pointed out factors that could have led to wastage – vaccines were opened but those scheduled to take shots did not show up, power outages, unknown particles found in the vaccines, and fires and disasters that contaminated or destroyed the supplies.
She maintained that vaccine wastage in the country is within the threshold set by the World Health Organization (WHO), which is at 10%.
“Wastage is wastage and we could have lessened it. The US and UK, they have more wastage than us but sila mayayaman (they are rich). Tayo kasi na (But in our case, we are ) third world, wastage is wastage,” he Solante said.
What the gov’t could have done
Aside from the early approval for second boosters for those with comorbidities, Solante said the government could have been “more persistent” with its vaccination campaign. He added that there was a low uptake of vaccination before the elections because cases were going down at that time. For him, it could have been the perfect timing to reach the unvaccinated.
“Mas mababa siguro ang nasayang (Maybe there would be less wastage), if we were really persistent with our vaccination. During the time of Duterte, we had national vaccination days. After that, parang nag-wane off. Bumaba ang vaccination uptake (it seemed to have waned. There was a reduction in the vaccination uptake),” Solante said.
He added: “Naaala mo noon bago magelection (If you remember, before the elections), cases were really going down. We lost that opportunity to give that vaccine. Walang (There’s no) urgency to do it.”
The house-to-house vaccination plan could have also helped reach the unvaccinated, Solante said.
“There were plans to do house-to-house campaign. Hindi natin nakikita ‘yan e (We don’t see that happening). I never see the impact of it,” he said.
Meanwhile, Solante disagreed with calls to expand the rollout of second booster shots to the general population, saying that evidence does not back it up.
“I don’t agree yet with giving a second booster to the general population. What we should strengthen is giving first booster shots to all eligible because we only have 16 million boosted,” he said.
As of August 8, over 71 million Filipinos have already been fully vaccinated against the disease. Of these, only 16.6 million have been boosted.