The Department of Health will conduct a national vaccination drive against coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) from Sept. 23 to 30 since the daily jab targets among senior citizens and those eligible for their first booster dose have not been met.

Dubbed Bakunahang Bayan: PinasLakas Vaccination Days, the campaign follows the end of the mandatory use of face masks outdoors on Sept. 12.

Loosening mask-wearing requirements gives the impression “that you should not be afraid of COVID-19,” said Dr. Ma. Encarnita “Maricar” B. Limpin, immediate past president of the Philippine College of Physicians (PCP).

“That will weaken the program,” she said in a Sept. 8 event organized by the PCP prior to the signing of the executive order that scrapped the mask mandate.

Just over two percent — or 2.48% — of senior citizens have completed their primary series as of Sept. 5, said Dr. Imran Rodriguez, Medical Officer III of the Department of Health (DoH).

Jabbing this population has proven to be “very challenging,” he added, as efforts have already been stretched looking for the unvaccinated senior citizens and giving them their first dose of the primary series, to enable their eligibility for the second dose.

More than a million individuals in this category have yet to complete the last dose of their primary series, he added.

Meanwhile, there are members of the general population who have completed their primary series but have become complacent, Dr. Rodriguez said.

“The booster doses are still far from our targets, with NCR [the National Capital Region] as the only region almost reaching the targeted 50%,” he added.

The PinasLakas campaign was launched by the National Government on July 26 with the aim of fully vaccinating 90% of senior citizens (a total of 1,074,110 recipients), and increasing booster dose coverage to 50% of the total target population (23,840,032 recipients) before Oct. 8, which marks the first 100 days of the Marcos administration.   

“We have reports that some individuals and healthcare workers are still hesitant to get vaccinated with vaccines that had their shelf lives extended,” Dr. Rodriguez said. “The labels of the vaccines can’t be hampered, hence the need to explain that the vaccines have an extended shelf life even if the label has a due expiring date.”

The US Food and Drug Authority (FDA) has extended the expiration date of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine PBS/Sucrose formulation to 12 months from 9 months when stored between -90°C to -60°C. It has also authorized an extension for the shelf life of the refrigerated Janssen COVID-19 Vaccine, allowing the product to be stored at 2°C–8°C for 11 months.

Current vaccines are highly effective at protecting against severe disease and death, according to Dr. Anna Lisa Ong-Lim, a pediatric infectious disease expert from the University of the Philippines-Philippine General Hospital.

Dr. Ong-Lim cited a review that she and 21 other medical professionals did of the 52 studies on the International Vaccine Access Center (IVAC) database that evaluated the effectiveness of booster doses.

The September study, available as a pre-print, found that vaccine effectiveness for Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Sinovac, and Janssen is 84.2% for the general population, and 87.4% for the elderly (over 60s).

It also found that all boosted COVID-19 vaccines show a high effectiveness against Omicron-related severe disease and death.

Three doses of the reviewed vaccines provided equivalent protection against severe disease and death when used as a homologous schedule, the experts noted. Three doses of the reviewed vaccines likewise provide equivalent protection against severe disease and death when used in a mixed schedule.

The study concluded there is no need to wait for the development of variant-specific vaccines, and that “booster programs should be expanded and be flexible, incorporating different vaccines into schedules according to local supply and logistical considerations.” — Patricia B. Mirasol