Philippines’ Duterte defends purchase of Chinese COVID-19 vaccine

Manila: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte defended his government's decision to purchase Chinese-made coronavirus vaccines, saying they are as good as the shots developed by the Americans and the Europeans.

"The Chinese are not lacking in brains," Duterte said in a late-night televised address on Wednesday. "The Chinese are bright. They would not venture [into producing vaccines] if it is not safe, sure and secure."

Duterte made the remarks as questions have been raised over the level of protection Sinovac Biotech's experimental COVID-19 vaccine can provide, after researchers in Brazil released late-stage clinical data showing the Sinovac/Biofarma CoronaVac had 50.4 per cent efficacy, lower than initially announced.

A man is seen wearing a makeshift mask made out of a styrofoam cup and a faceshield made out of a plastic bottle to protect against COVID-19 in Manila, Philippines. Credit:Getty Images

At least one Philippine senator, Francis Pangilinan, called on the government to cancel the purchase of the Sinovac vaccine, one of seven it is lining up as it plans to begin immunisation next month.

Manila has locked in 25 million doses of the Sinovac vaccine, with the first 50,000 expected to arrive in February.

Duterte, who has pursued warmer ties with Beijing, has said previously his preference was for his country to source its COVID-19 vaccines from either China or Russia.

Sinovac Biotech defended the safety and efficacy of its experimental COVID-19 vaccine after the Brazilian announcement. It was just 50.4 per cent effective at preventing symptomatic infections in the Brazilian trial, including data on "very mild" cases.

"These Phase III clinical trial results are sufficient to prove that CoronaVac vaccine's safety and effectiveness are good around the world," Sinovac Biotech Chairman Yin Weidong told a news conference.

Last week, they said the CoronaVac had showed 78 per cent efficacy against "mild-to-severe" cases.

The news prompted Malaysia and Singapore, which have purchase agreements with Sinovac, to say they would seek more data from the Chinese firm on efficacy rates before they approved and bought supplies.

Different countries used vaccines from the same batch in their trials, but the countries don't have identical testing protocols, he said.

Piecemeal disclosures from Sinovac's trials as well as those from studies of other Chinese vaccines have raised concerns that they are not subject to the same public scrutiny as US and European alternatives.

The data from Brazil was released just as Indonesia rolled its vaccination campaign, with President Joko Widodo being the first to be inoculated with Sinovac's CoronaVac.

Malaysia said on Wednesday it would only go ahead with procurement if the vaccine satisfied the safety and efficacy standards of local regulators. It has signed a deal with Sinovac to purchase 14 million doses of CoronaVac and later to manufacture it domestically.

Singapore, the only high-income nation with which Sinovac has struck a deal, said it would go through official data when Sinovac releases it, rather than depend on efficacy reported so far, and then decide whether to approve it.

Thailand, which has ordered 2 million doses of CoronaVac said it was still on track to receive and administer the vaccine starting next month, but added it would ask for information directly from Sinovac.

Carlito Galvez, a former general in charge of the vaccination procurement effort in the Philippines, said the government had also firmed up supply deals with Novavax, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and Russia's Gamaleya Institute for 137 million doses in total.

These are on top of 40 million doses the Philippines expects to receive through the World Health Organisation's COVAX facility in the first quarter, Galvez said.

The Philippines has among the most coronavirus cases in Asia. It hopes this year to inoculate 70 million people, or two-thirds of its population.

An opinion poll showed on Thursday less than a third of Filipinos were willing to get inoculated against the coronavirus as many have voiced concerns over safety. Philippine regulators have yet to approve any COVID-19 vaccines.


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