By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza
and Charmaine A. Tadalan, Reporter

THE PHILIPPINES will get as many as 40 million doses of free coronavirus vaccines this quarter under a global initiative that ensures their equal distribution, according to the country’s vaccine czar.

The country’s participation in the World Health Organization’s (WHO) COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) facility was confirmed on Wednesday, Carlito A. Galvez, Jr., chief enforcer of the government’s anti-coronavirus efforts, told an online news briefing on Thursday.

“The COVAX facility already approved the deployment of vaccines in the Philippines,” he added.

The government seeks to start its vaccination drive this quarter, when the first batch of the vaccines are expected to arrive, Mr. Galvez said.

The vaccines that will arrive first would probably be manufactured by Pfizer, Inc., AstraZeneca Plc, Serum Institute of India and Johnson & Johnson, he added.

“With or without COVAX,” COVID-19 vaccines will reach Philippine shores, Mr. Galvez said. “This is through procurement by the National Government.”

The country seeks to buy 148 million doses of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) vaccines from seven frontrunners in the COVID-19 vaccine race to immunize 50 to 70 million Filipinos this year.

The Department of Health (DoH) reported 1,783 coronavirus infections on Thursday, bringing the total to 507,717. The death toll rose by 74 to 10,116, while recoveries increased by 500 to 467,475, it said in a bulletin.

There were 30,126 active cases, 84.8% of which were mild, 8% did not show symptoms, 2.5% were severe and 4.4% were critical.

Quezon City reported the highest number of new cases at 99, followed by Rizal at 83, Manila at 78, Bulacan at 69 and Cavite at 66.

DoH said five duplicates had been removed from the tally, while 15 cases tagged as recovered were reclassified as deaths. Four laboratories failed to submit their data on Jan. 20.

Mr. Galvez said the government might create separate teams to handle coronavirus vaccines and its expanded immunization program to ensure an “uninterrupted focus and rollout of both immunization programs.”

Meanwhile, the Philippine government has secured cold chain storage facilities for COVID-19 vaccines, Mr. Galvez said.

He said the government United Laboratories, Inc. (Unilab), Zuellig Pharma Corp. and the Research Institute of Tropical Medicine (RITM) are among those that will provide the equipment.

Unilab’s cold storage facility has a temperature range of +2 to +8 °C and can store as many as five million doses, Mr. Galvez said.

Zuellig Pharma can accommodate vaccines with temperature requirements ranging from -80 to +25°C, he added.

Mr. Galvez said Zuellig’s +2 to +8°C cold rooms can store as many as 629 million doses, while its -15 to -25°C walk-in freezers can hold as many as 40 million doses. It’s 14 ultra-cold freezers with -80 to -70 °C temperature range can store as many as 6.5 million doses, he added.

He and Health Secretary Francisco T. Duque III on Wednesday inspected three facilities that will store the first batch of vaccines.

The facilities were located at the First Pioneer Distribution Center of Unilab in Biñan City, the RITM in Muntinlupa City and the Zuellig Pharma warehouse in Parañaque City.

At the same briefing, Health Director Ariel I. Valencia said they would bid out the contracts for cold storage facilities and the transportation for vaccine deployment.

Also on Thursday, the Department of Health (DOH) proposed to tighten the country’s testing protocols for foreign travelers to ensure the detection of new coronavirus strains, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario S. Vergeire told an online news briefing.

This, after three co-passengers and the girlfriend of the Filipino infected with the more transmissible COVID-19 variant tested negative upon arrival in Manila, but later tested positive for the coronavirus. Health authorities were still checking if they also got infected with the new variant.

Inbound passengers regardless of country of origin should be tested upon arrival and undergo another swab test five days into their quarantine to ensure they are negative, she said.

A new round of COVID-19 testing should be done before they are allowed to go home, she added.

Inbound passengers are only required to get swabbed at the airport and then quarantined for as long as 14 days at a government-accredited facility while awaiting results. COVID-19 symptoms can appear within five days to two weeks after a person is exposed.