By Vann Marlo M. Villegas, Reporter

THE PHILIPPINES may take delivery of coronavirus vaccines from AstraZeneca Plc soon after meeting the requirements under a global initiative for equal access, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

“The Philippines has met all the requirements necessary for accessing AstraZeneca vaccines,” WHO country representative Rabindra Abeyasinghe told an online news briefing on Tuesday.

Mr. Abeyasinghe said WHO was looking at fast-tracking the delivery of at least a part of the shipments of AstraZeneca vaccines to the Philippines.

“We are optimistic that before the end of this week, we will hear from the COVAX initiative on likely delivery dates for Astrazeneca vaccines to the Philippines,” he added.

Vaccine czar Carlito G. Galvez earlier said the government would get 5.5 million to 9.3 million doses from AstraZeneca in the first half.

Mr. Abeyasinghe said the Philippine government was in talks with Pfizer, Inc. after its vaccine delivery got delayed.

The country failed to take delivery of 117,000 initial doses of Pfizer vaccines under the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) facility in the absence of an indemnification plan that would protect vaccine makers from potential lawsuits.

“We believe that a limited quantity of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines will be shipped as early as possible once this required exchange of letters is completed and the requirements are met by the Philippine government and the manufacturer of the vaccine,” Mr. Abeyasinghe said.

The WHO official also said drug makers had required the indemnification clause in the contracts after these were approved for emergency use.

“The indemnification clause is something that the manufacturers are demanding from any country,” Mr. Abeyansinghe said, adding that it applies to both direct purchase and through COVAX.

He also said the vaccine impasse involving Pfizer would be resolved as soon as some legal documents are cleared. “We will see a resolution of that impasse and maybe there will be room to  hear when potential deliveries can happen.

Mr. Galvez last week said the country had submitted agreements to the COVAX facility for the indemnity deal for Pfizer and AstraZeneca.

Meanwhile, WHO was evaluating vaccines developed by Chinese drug makers Sinovac Biotech and Sinopharm Group Co. Ltd.

The local Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authorized the use of Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Sinovac for emergency use.

The Department of Health (DoH) reported 1,414 coronavirus infections on Tuesday, bringing the total to 564,865.

The death toll rose by 16 to 12,107, while recoveries increased by 72 to 522,941, it said in a bulletin.

There were 29,817 active cases, 88.4%  of which were mild, 5.7% did not show symptoms, 2.6% were critical, 2.5% were severe and 0.84% were moderate.

The DoH said five duplicates had been removed from the tally. Three deaths were reclassified as recoveries, while three recoveries were reclassified as deaths. Eight laboratories failed to submit their data on Feb. 22.

About 8.1 million Filipinos have been tested for the coronavirus as of Feb. 21, according to DoH’s tracker website.

The coronavirus has sickened about 112.3 million and killed almost 2.5 million people worldwide, according to the Worldometers website, citing various sources including data from the World Health Organization (WHO).

More than 87.9 million people have recovered, it said.

President Rodrigo R. Duterte this week said Manila, the capital and nearby areas would remain under a general lockdown until people get vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Mr. Duterte sees the importance of reopening the economy but he “gives a higher premium to public health and safety,” his spokesman Herminio “Harry” L. Roque, Jr. said on Monday night.

Mr. Roque said the President had ordered his Cabinet officials to start the vaccination “the soonest possible time” so quarantines could be further eased.

The country’s economic planners had been urging the President to relax the lockdown to boost consumption and stimulate economic growth.

Economic recovery could be dragged by the government’s slow mass vaccination program, think tank Capital Economics said in a note on Tuesday. 

“In Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia, the slow vaccine rollout means that restrictions will need to remain in place for longer, holding back the economic recovery,” it said.

Without the vaccine, ING Bank economist Nicholas Mapa said economic output would continue to shrink this quarter, while growth in the next quarters will only be supported by last year’s low base.

“The one true antidote to the lack of confidence would be the vaccine procured by the government as this would generate GDP (gross domestic product) momentum via increased government expenditure, while simultaneously curing Filipinos’ anxiety tied to catching the virus,” he said in a note.

The National Economic and Development Authority last week recommended placing the entire Philippines under the most relaxed quarantine level.

Metro Manila and the Cordillera Administrative Region were kept under a general quarantine this month amid rising coronavirus cases.

Also under a general lockdown were Batangas, Tacloban City, Davao City, Davao del Norte, Lanao del Sur and Iligan City. The rest of the country is under the lowest quarantine level.

Researchers from the University of the Philippines earlier said coronavirus cases in the capital region could reach as high as 2,400 daily if the lockdown was eased.

Acting Socioeconomic Secretary Karl Kendrick T. Chua said his office supports Mr. Duterte’s decision not to relax quarantines. “The whole of government will work hard, in cooperation with various sectors, to roll out the vaccine so that we can further open the economy,” he said in a Viber group message. — with Beatrice M. Laforga