MANILA, Philippines -- The Philippines received its first batch of COVID-19 vaccine Sunday, among the last in Southeast Asia to secure the critical doses despite having the second-highest number of coronavirus infections and deaths in the hard-hit region.
A Chinese military transport aircraft carrying 600,000 doses of vaccine donated by China arrived in an air base in the capital. President Rodrigo Duterte and top Cabinet officials expressed relief and thanked Beijing for the the vaccine from China-based Sinovac Biotech Ltd. in a televised ceremony.
“COVID-19 vaccines should be treated as a global public good and made available to all, rich and poor alike,” Duterte said, warning that “no one is safe until everyone is safe.”
China's ambassador to the Philippines, Huang Xilian, said China has exported vaccines to 27 countries despite its own domestic needs, adding “no winter lasts forever” when China and other countries help each other in solidarity when crisis strikes.
Vaccinations initially of health workers and top officials led by the health secretary were scheduled to start in six Metropolitan Manila hospitals Monday.
Aside from the donated Sinovac vaccine, the government has separately ordered 25 million doses from the China-based company. Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said the delivery of an initial 525,600 doses of AstraZeneca's vaccine that was initially scheduled for Monday would be delayed by a week due to supply problems.
The initial deliveries are a small fraction of at least 148 million doses the government has been negotiating to secure from Western and Asian companies to vaccinate about 70 million Filipinos for free in a massive campaign. The bulk of the vaccine shipments are expected to arrive later this year.
The Philippines has reported more than 576,000 infections, including 12,318 deaths, the second-highest totals in Southeast Asia after Indonesia. Lockdowns and quarantine restrictions have set back Manila’s economy in one of the worst recessions in the region and sparked unemployment and hunger.
Duterte’s administration has come under criticism for lagging behind most other Southeast Asian countries in securing the vaccines, including much smaller and poorer ones like Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos.
The tough-talking Duterte has said wealthy Western countries have cornered massive doses for their citizens, leaving poorer nations scrambling for the rest. In a sign of desperation, the president said last December that he would proceed to abrogate a key security pact with the United States that allows large numbers of American troops to conduct war exercises in the Philippines if Washington could not provide at least 20 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine.
“No vaccine, no stay here,” Duterte said then.
The Chinese vaccine delivery was delayed due to the absence of an emergency-use authorization from Manila’s Food and Drug Administration. Sinovac got the authorization last Monday. Western pharmaceutical companies also wanted the Philippine government to guarantee that it would take responsibility for lawsuits and demands for indemnity arising from possible adverse side effects from the vaccine, officials said.
Aside from supply problems, there have been concerns over the vaccine’s safety, largely due to a dengue vaccine scare that prompted the Duterte administration to stop a massive immunization drive in 2017.
Associated Press writer Edna Tarigan in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.