After delays, Philippines finally receives first Pfizer doses

Following months of uncertainty, Filipinos will soon receive the Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine after an initial delivery of the shot finally arrived in the Philippines on Monday night, May 10. 

The shipment of an initial 193,050 Pfizer doses landed at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport at about 8:51 pm onboard DHL Plane Flight LD457, according to the National Task Force for COVID-19. It is the Philippines’ first shipment of Pfizer’s vaccine supplied by the COVAX global facility, led by the World Health Organization. 

Key officials from the Duterte government, including Science and Technology Secretary Fortunato Dela Peña, Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles, Deputy Chief Implementer Vince Dizon, and Health Undersecretary Leopoldo Vega welcomed the shipment, along with United States Embassy Economic Counselor Chip Gamble, UN Resident Coordinator Gustavo Gonzalez, and WHO Philippines Representative Dr Rabindra Abeyasinghe, among others. (Editor's Note: Based on a Philippine government advisory, an earlier version of this story said US Embassy Chargé d’Affaires John Law was present. It was Economic Counselor Chip Gamble who represented the embassy.)

The arrival of the shipment comes days after 2 million AstraZeneca doses from COVAX arrived in the Philippines on May 8. The delivery of Pfizer’s vaccine also makes for the 4th vaccine to become available in the country’s vaccination drive. 

Filipinos had earlier been made to expect the arrival of an 117,000 doses of Pfizer's shot by mid-February, with health workers among the first lined up to get the jab. But the lack of an indemnification law, as well as disagreements over the scope of indemnity for Pfizer, had stalled the country's access to the vaccine.

Up until the delivery of Pfizer’s vaccine, widely used in the Philippine government’s vaccination campaign were those developed by Sinovac, AstraZeneca, and the Gamaleya Research Institute of Russia. Pfizer’s vaccine had been the first to be granted emergency approval in the Philippines last January 2021. 

In a press briefing on Monday, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said initial doses of Pfizer’s vaccine would be allocated to Metro Manila, Cebu City, and Davao City. The highly urbanized areas were among those part of initial simulation exercise done earlier in the year to practice handling of Pfizer’s vaccine which required storage and transportation at -80 to -60 degrees Celsius and were among areas still seeing higher transmission of COVID-19 infections in the country. 

Vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr earlier said Pfizer shots intended for Davao City and Cebu City would be flown straight to these cities, instead of passing through Metro Manila to reduce risks of “double-handling” the ultra-sensitive vaccine. 

Galvez said some 4 million to 7 million doses of vaccine from COVAX were expected to arrive in May, while the Philippines was set to receive 2.3 million doses of the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine "not later than June.” 

Phase 3 trial data reported in late 2020 showed Pfizer’s vaccine demonstrated an efficacy of 95% against symptomatic COVID-19, 7 days after the 2nd dose was completed. A recent study in the United Kingdom, meanwhile, emphasized the importance of getting the second dose of the vaccine, citing remaining risk from virus variants after the first dose.  

Apart from Pfizer’s vaccine, the Philippine expects to receive more shipments from Sinovac, Gamaleya Research Institute, and COVAX within May. 

Since launching its vaccine drive on March 1, around 1.79% of the country's population have received the first of two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. Those who were fully vaccinated represent around 0.41% of the population as of May 8. – Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs and is the lead reporter on the coronavirus pandemic. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter via @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.

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