A woman wearing a face mask and a face shield joins a protest during the 48th anniversary of the Martial Law declaration in the Philippines, in Quezon City, Philippines on September 21, 2020. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto/ Lisa Marie David

MANILA – While the United States and United Kingdom start to roll out mass Covid-19 vaccination campaigns, developing countries like the Philippines are scrambling to access affordable and reliable vaccines for their at-risk populations.

The United Arab Emirates became the first country to approve the Chinese-made vaccine Sinovac for mass inoculation this month, while other major developing countries such as Indonesia have already received more than a million doses of China-made vaccines.

A growing number of Arab and Latin American nations are expected to become among the first recipients of Chinese-made vaccines, with Chinese company Sinopharm preparing to deliver 500 million doses worldwide in the near future.

Countries such as the Philippines, however, are not expected to introduce mass inoculation until the middle of next year after failing to secure enough vaccines in advance from either Western or Chinese pharmaceutical companies.

Critics charge this is due largely to a lack of proactiveness on the behalf of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who early on overly committed to China and Russia-made vaccines at the early trial stage.

At the time, he opposed advance payment for now more reliable vaccines from the likes of Pfizer and AstraZeneca, the former of which has claimed a 95% efficacy rate.

In a speech to the United Nation’s General Assembly this month, Duterte lamented “gross injustice” in the lack of universal access to vaccines, citing developed countries cornering the bulk of newly available vaccines.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in facemask during the Covid-19 crisis. Photo: Presidential Office

“If any country is excluded by reason of poverty or strategic unimportance, this gross injustice will haunt the world for a long time,” the Filipino leader said in a pre-recorded speech for the UN General Assembly’s 31st Special Session in early December.

Rich nations have reportedly secured an estimated 80% of the total vaccine supply, clinching access to 3.1 billion doses of vaccines to be delivered over the coming months.

What Duterte failed to acknowledge, however, is that his lack of proactiveness and foresight may now be costing his country more lives and even further economic immiseration to the pandemic.

According to the International Monetary Fund, the Philippines will suffer the largest fall in projected GDP growth over the next five years, following a prolonged lockdown in response to one of the worst Covid-19 outbreaks in Asia.

Even a few months delay in mass vaccination could prove disastrous for fragile, Covid-hit economies such as the Philippines, experts warn. The Philippines has had over 451,000 cases and 8,800 deaths since the pandemic erupted, according to Johns Hopkins University’s Covid-19 Dashboard global tracker.

According to the Philippines’ vaccine czar, former military chief Carlito Galvez, the government will prioritize 35 million Filipinos, especially frontline medical workers, government employees and populations in major economic hubs, for its first round of mass inoculation sometime next year.

Galvez said he has asked for 25 million doses of China’s CoronaVac to arrive in March, but no deal has been confirmed.

The Philippines will thus start mass vaccinations in the second quarter of 2021 at the earliest, with the capacity to only vaccinate 20 million to 30 million people per year, according to Galvez. That’s a small percentage of the country’s near 110 million population.

To achieve herd immunity, which requires vaccination of close to 70% or more of the population, it could take between three to five years, according to Philippine officials.

Filipinos rush to buy protective masks at a medical supplies store in Manila on January 31, 2020. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

This means the Southeast Asian country will have to grapple with a prolonged combination of public health and economic crises, despite the availability of likely safe and effective vaccines by the end of 2020.

The Philippines anti-Western president is largely responsible for this situation, critics say. Earlier this year, the Philippines was offered the opportunity to secure large doses of vaccines from pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer, but Duterte flatly rejected paying “reservation fee” to “Western” companies, which he decried as profit-making machines.

“You want us to make a reservation by depositing money, you must be crazy. Why would I do it in that style?” Duterte said in a national address in September, just as Western companies such as Pfizer entered the final phase of their hugely promising medical trials.

Many countries have already managed to secure large numbers of vaccines once proven effective through the so-called Advance Market Commitments mechanism, which ensures an element of shared risk for the benefit of development of effective vaccines on a large scale.

By the time Duterte reportedly changed his mind in November, Pfizer had already locked in exports to major customers around the world.

The Philippines has been able to secure 2.6 million doses of British-Swedish AstraZeneca’s vaccine, which has also shown up to 90% effectiveness, but only because local conglomerates and tycoons pooled their resources to secure a shipment.

But this will only cover just over 1% of the Philippine population, with the bulk of doses expected to go to government workers and major private companies.

As a result, the Philippines will be desperately dependent on vaccines from the likes of China and Russia, neither of which are particularly known for world-class pharmaceutical industries, research or innovation.

Indeed, scientists and independent experts have raised major concerns over the reliability and safety of these alternative vaccines, with neither Chinese nor Russian companies providing full details of their medical trials yet.

Cognizant of rising and deep concerns among the population over Chinese and Russian vaccines, Duterte has personally vouched for their safety.

An attenuated vaccine developed by the state-owned SinoPharm. Photo: Xinhua

In a televised address in October, the Filipino president said, “If they offer [vaccines] – I am waiting for the Chinese or Russians to call me — I’d be glad to open up my sleeves and [say] I have confidence [in their product],” Duterte said.

“I can say that China is a modern country and it has all the wherewithal… [its] integrity is fully protected by its achievements,” he added.

The Philippines, however, has also been behind the curve in securing Chinese vaccines, with no large-scale trials or co-production schemes in place with the likes of Sinovac.

One major concern unique to countries such as the Philippines is the potential for Beijing to dangle vaccine access for other strategic concessions, including in regard to festering maritime disputes in the resource-rich South China Sea.

A recent report by Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies-Yusof Ishak Institute warned, “Beijing may use its vaccine donations to advance its regional agenda, particularly on sensitive issues such as its claims in the South China Sea.”

The Duterte administration is adamant that there will be no strings attached to any Chinese vaccine shipments.

“I think the possibility of using the vaccine as pressure as far as the Philippines is concerned is almost nil,” claimed Presidential spokesman Harry Roque in trying to downplay the country’s desperation and reliance on lesser suppliers of Covid-19 vaccines.