THE Philippines began COVID-19 vaccinations today using jabs donated by Beijing, giving the country’s immunization program and diplomatic ties with China a shot in the arm.
The rollout of Chinese-made vaccines comes as President Rodrigo Duterte’s government faces criticism for lagging behind the region in vaccination drives. Duterte plans to visit China later this year to personally thank President Xi Jinping.
The Philippines aims to immunize up to 70 million Filipinos this year, or over half the population. But the goal is under threat by low public confidence in vaccines — especially those from China — even as the country has the second-highest number of infections in Southeast Asia and one of the worst pandemic-induced recessions in the region.
Gerardo Legaspi, director of state-run Philippine General Hospital, received the first shot of Sinovac Biotech’s CoronaVac. Food and Drug Administration chief Eric Domingo and Secretary Vince Dizon, a ranking member of the COVID task force, also received shots during a “symbolic vaccination” aimed at shoring up public confidence.
“I am giving the guarantee that it is effective,” Duterte said earlier on. The 75-year-old leader, however, said his doctor did not endorse Sinovac after local regulators recommended it only for those aged 18 to 59.
The vaccines were pledged by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during his Southeast Asian tour in January. Indonesia and Cambodia also kicked off their vaccination programs using Chinese-made vaccines while Laos also received vaccine donations from Beijing.
But some in the Philippines worry that the Chinese donations may compromise the country’s position on hot-button issues such as the South China Sea, where Manila and Beijing are locked in a territorial dispute. But Duterte dismissed those fears.
Duterte and Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian examine a vial of Sinovac’s vaccine at a ceremony marking the first shipment of the COVID-19 vaccine to the Philippines. © Reuters
“China has been giving us everything but never asked anything from us actually,” Duterte said, before railing against the U.S., which he said is “asking for a [military] base.”