ABOUT 3.6 million coronavirus vaccine doses donated to the Philippines have expired and will be replaced by a global program for equal access to COVID-19 vaccines, according to the Department of Health (DoH).

The expired vaccines accounted for 1.5% of the country’s coronavirus vaccine stocks, Health Secretary Francisco T. Duque III told a televised meeting with President Rodrigo R. Duterte aired on Wednesday. These will be replaced at no cost under the COVID-19 vaccine global access or COVAX, he added.

He said the government had appealed to vaccine makers to replace expired coronavirus vaccines bought by the government.

Vaccine czar Carlito G. Galvez, Jr. told the meeting the country still had 98 million coronavirus vaccine shots.

“COVAX may replace expired vaccines with freshly manufactured ones with a longer shelf life of more or less six months to a year,” he said in Filipino.

More than 67 million Filipinos have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, about 13 million of whom had also been injected with booster shots, according to DoH.

The Philippines might experience another surge in coronavirus infections by May or June, similar to what other countries are experiencing now, OCTA Research Group fellow Fredegusto P. David told a virtual town meeting on Monday.

The Philippines on Monday started giving out second booster shots against the coronavirus to seriously ill people.

Among those eligible for the shots are people with weak immune systems, those living with HIV, cancer, transplant and bedridden patients, and the terminally ill, the Department of Health (DoH) said in a statement.

A coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak could happen among unvaccinated Filipinos, said Teodoro J. Herbosa, an adviser at the National Task Force Against COVID-19.

OCTA President Ranjit S. Rye, citing a poll they conducted on March 5 to 10, said 77% of Filipinos were willing to get their booster shots, while 23% were unsure.

He added that 53% of those who were unsure felt that booster shots are safe, while 35% thought these are not needed.

Only certain areas in the capital region were ready to roll out the second booster shots, the Health department said on Monday.

Members of the vulnerable sector should get a vaccine brand that is different from their earlier shots for more protection, according to Nina Gloriani, who heads the government’s vaccine expert panel.

The second booster vaccine should be injected three months after the first, the Health department said earlier.

The government would soon give out a second booster for seniors and health workers to boost protection, said Ms. Gloriani, who heads the government’s Vaccine Expert Panel.

An independent advisory body of DoH would probably release its recommendations on the use of second booster shots for these categories this week.

Ms. Gloriani said they don’t expect any problems about safety.

Some medical frontliners and senior citizens this week wrongly received second booster shots at a hospital in Metro Manila even if the initial rollout was supposed to be limited to people with a weak immune system.

Rontgene M. Solante, a member of the government’s vaccine expert panel, told a town hall meeting on Monday economic frontliners should get their first booster shots to ensure that economic recovery was not derailed.

Based on DoH guidelines, economic frontliners include private sector workers required to physically report for work, employees in government agencies and informal sector workers and self-employed people who work outside. They also include people who work in private households.

At the same meeting, presidential adviser for entrepreneurship Jose Ma. A. Concepcion III said Filipinos should take their booster shots to prevent lockdowns, which would stall the recovery momentum of businesses.    

“We don’t want to go back to Alert Level 3,” he said. “That would really destroy the renewed enthusiasm of entrepreneurs as they see their lives and businesses coming back. You don’t want to break that momentum.”

The private sector is working on how to entice more Filipinos to get their COVID-19 booster shots, he separately said in a mobile phone message.

“It is challenging with the current environment. But we are working on it,” he added.    

He also said private companies are conducting information drives to inform people that COVID-19 vaccines are safe. — Norman P. Aquino