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COVID vaccines

Philippines fights vaccine bias in face of Pfizer preference

Officials renew calls for public to take jabs that are available

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte receives Sinopharm's COVID-19 vaccine at the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila on May 3. (Photo by PCOO)

MANILA -- The Philippines will stop announcing the maker of the COVID vaccines being administered at inoculation centers, after people crowded venues offering Pfizer jabs.

The new policy is meant to "overcome vaccine brand preference" as the Philippines, already challenged by prevailing vaccine hesitancy, races to inoculate over half its population this year and revive a reeling economy.

On Thursday, the interior ministry directed all local government units "to refrain from announcing the vaccine brands," while the Department of Health renewed calls for the public to take whatever shot is available, reiterating that all the vaccines have been rigorously evaluated.

"The best vaccine is the one that is available. Therefore, in order to overcome brand preference, LGUs should not announce the brand of vaccine to be used in vaccination centers," Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano said in a statement.

Individuals scheduled for vaccination will still be informed of the brand on site. "But if [the recipient] refuses, he will have to go back to the back of the line," Ano added.

Early this week, hundreds flocked to Metro Manila vaccination sites offering Pfizer doses. Many started queuing early in the morning and others went to sites without the required appointment, crowding venues and breaching physical distancing protocols, several local news outlets reported.

"When it was announced that there is Pfizer, everybody wanted to use Pfizer," Health Undersecretary Myrna Cabotaje said at a briefing on Wednesday.

There are only 193,000 Pfizer doses available out of the Philippines' total supply of 8.2 million doses. Most, 5.5 million jabs, are from China's Sinovac. Over 2 million doses are from AstraZeneca and 30,000 doses are Sputnik V vaccines from Russia.

The Pfizer doses, like those from AstraZenaca, are donated by the U.N.-backed COVAX facility. Front-line workers and the elderly are priority recipients.

The Philippines is set to sign a deal for 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, the country's largest agreement so far, vaccine czar Carlito Galvez said last week.

Choosiness among Filipinos over which vaccine to take, along with general hesitancy over COVID shots, has been a problem for the vaccine program. A survey by Octa Research in January and February revealed that only 19% of Filipinos were willing to be vaccinated. Trust in vaccines from U.S. is the highest, at 41%, while trust in jabs from China is the lowest at 13%, Octa said.

In January, presidential spokesman Harry Roque described the preference for Western brands like the U.S.-made Pfizer jab as a "colonial mentality."

But officials have noted that more people are getting the jab since the country began its vaccination drive in March. Government officials received Sinovac vaccines on national TV to shore up public confidence. President Rodrigo Duterte, for his part, took China's Sinopharm vaccine under a "compassionate" use permit, not the emergency use authorization granted by regulators for other vaccines.

As of Thursday, around 3.3 million doses have been administered the national COVID task force said.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque on Thursday renewed calls for people to get vaccinated with the brand that is on hand. "We call on the public to choose to be vaccinated to protect yourselves and your loved ones [at] the soonest possible time," he said.

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