MANILA — As countries work round-the-clock to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, pharmaceutical industry experts on Thursday urged the Philippines to embark on a massive campaign to regain public trust in the government’s immunization program.
Fear of vaccines was blamed for the reemergence of polio and the outbreak of dengue and measles last year, and could linger once a vaccine becomes available for the new coronavirus.
More than 100 vaccines are being developed worldwide in an unprecedented pace to defeat a pandemic that has infected more than 6.2 million people and killed 380,000.
“There is a problem of trust in vaccines and vaccination, but this is not specific to the Philippines,” Dr. Jean-Antoine Zinsou, Philippine general manager of Sanofi Pateur, told an online forum.
Philippine health officials had attributed vaccine hesitancy partly to the controversy over Sanofi’s dengue vaccine, which the country's Public Attorney’s Office claimed had caused the death of several children.
The French drugmaker had said there was no evidence to show they died because of the vaccine.
“I think it’s a problem and the lack of trust and confidence in vaccines started here in the Philippines before the arrival of this dengue vaccine,” said Zinsou.
The World Health Organization earlier cited “persistently low immunization coverage” in the Philippines in the past few years, as it pointed out the required 95-percent rate to protect communities against vaccine-preventable diseases.
Vaccination for measles went down from over 80 percent to under 70 percent between 2008 and 2017, according to the WHO.
Fear triggered by the controversy over the dengue vaccine was among the reasons for the low immunization rate for measles in select areas in Metro Manila, according to the Department of Health, citing a WHO study in October 2018.
Dr. Beaver Tamesis, president of the Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Association of the Philippines, said an aggressive grassroots campaign could reverse the “resurgence of vaccine hesitancy.”
"You can convert an acceptance rate of only 20 percent all the way back to more than 90 percent," he said in a forum organized by the Foreign Correspondents' Association of the Philippines.
Local governments, medical societies, and community organizations should come together to explain the benefits of immunization, Tamesis said.
Experts have set a target of 12 to 18 months to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.
Tamesis said making one available by next year was “possible but it’s a stretch,” noting that vaccine development ordinarily took between 5 and 15 years to ensure efficacy.
Sanofi's Zinsou said expediting the process for a COVID-19 vaccine did not mean skipping any of the steps.
The process consists of the exploratory and pre-clinical phases, clinical development, regulatory, review and approval, manufacturing, and quality control.
“People need to understand that it takes time,” said Zinsou.
In the meantime, he cited the need to “educate” the public on who would first get access to the vaccine given its limited supply.
“We need to prepare for the arrival of this vaccine because billions of doses will be needed but we cannot produce billions of doses overnight,” he said.
“People need to understand why this group of population is vaccinated and not this other group. Otherwise, there will be some kind of contest in a country because people won’t understand why they’re not given access to the vaccine.”