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The Philippines Faces Challenge In Stocking Enough COVID-19 Vaccines


COVID-19 vaccines were developed in record time, but getting those vaccines into the arms of people around the world, especially in developing countries, is a different story. Vaccinations have not yet begun in the Philippines and may not start for several months. NPR's Julie McCarthy has this report on why the country is so far behind.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: The Philippines is mired in one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks among the 10 nations of Southeast Asia.


MCCARTHY: Mechanical breathing punctuates the COVID-19 ward of Southern Philippines Medical Center in Davao City, where all 30 of the hospital's ICUs are occupied. Like bellows, the ventilator pushes air into the lungs of a patient with diabetes and an acute case of COVID-19. The man in his 60s is one of nearly a half a million Filipinos who have contracted the virus since the start of the pandemic.

BRIAN LIMANSAG: For the past few months, you have an increasing number of COVID patients here at Davao.

MCCARTHY: That's attending resident Dr. Brian Limansag. Making his rounds this week, he recorded the sounds of the COVID unit for NPR. He says in his 1,400-bed hospital, a quarter of the beds are reserved for COVID-19 cases. The young doctor is taken aback to learn that it won't be until May - another five months - before vaccines roll out in the Philippines.

LIMANSAG: Oh, I feel - May. That's sad.

MCCARTHY: Sad, he says, because every month of delay will mean more sick and dying. Unequal allocations of COVID-19 vaccines are causing delays in many middle- and low-income countries. The world's high-income countries have laid claim to nearly half of the current vaccines available, and they're buying more. But Andrea Taylor with the Duke Global Health Innovation Center says rich countries spent vast amounts of public money to develop vaccines, which have reached the market with stunning speed.

ANDREA TAYLOR: That would not have been possible without the massive investment coming from high-income countries. At the same time, though, that put high-income countries at the front of the line to purchase these vaccines, and they did.

MCCARTHY: Taylor says they cleared the shelves, and everyone else has to wait until the shelves are essentially restocked in late 2021 or 2022. In the case of the Philippines, poor decision-making by President Rodrigo Duterte has compounded the problem, says Manila-based commentator Richard Heydarian.

RICHARD HEYDARIAN: So while it's true that there are structural inequalities in global access to vaccines with developing countries in a disadvantaged position, it's also true that lack of proactiveness on the part of populist leaders like President Duterte has also cost the country immensely.

MCCARTHY: Heydarian says Duterte wasn't proactive about reserving doses from Western vaccine developers, whom he called profiteers. He preferred Chinese vaccines, but their data on safety and efficacy has not been made public. Philippine Ambassador to Washington Jose Manuel Romualdez says no country was prepared for this crisis.

JOSE MANUEL ROMUALDEZ: Absolutely no one and no country. So with that, we're just getting our act together, in a way, by simply being practical in the purchases of these vaccines and how we're going to deploy them.

MCCARTHY: And Duterte sounds eager to use all of his leverage. He threatened a security agreement that lets U.S. forces visit his country for joint exercises. He said he'll end it unless the U.S. supplied at least 20 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine to the Philippines. He told a televised briefing the day after Christmas...


PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTE: No vaccine, no stay here.


MCCARTHY: The country's vaccine czar told that same briefing that the Philippines is on the verge of securing 80 million doses from deals with Western vaccine developers - Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson - by May. He says Russia and China could supply doses as well. The Philippines is opting for herd immunity and expects to vaccinate 25% of its 110 million people by the end of this year. General Restituto Padilla with the country's COVID task force says priority will be given to the urban poor.

RESTITUTO PADILLA: This makes sense because most of our marginal communities are mostly the densely populated area. That's where they live. And if we vaccinate them and make them part of the priority, we actually and essentially take care of this potential hot spot.

MCCARTHY: The Philippines is part of a global picture that is troubling to Andrea Taylor of Duke Global Health. She says worldwide, supplies will be limited as vaccines roll out.

TAYLOR: It does look very bleak at the moment. We are likely headed for a situation where high-income countries are able to fully vaccinate their populations, while low-income countries have only potentially covered their - 3% or 5% of their most at-risk populations, and that is not a good outcome for anyone.

MCCARTHY: And that's even with the assistance from a WHO initiative to ensure that no economy gets completely left behind. Back at the Davao City hospital, new suspected COVID-19 patients crowd the reception hall. Weary front-liners wonder when they will be given the shots. Dr. Brian Limansag has another fear - anti-vaxxers. He already sees patients who distrust medical professionals.

LIMANSAG: They somehow blame us. Like, COVID is just a rumor; COVID is not true. They don't believe in social distancing.

MCCARTHY: Accessing COVID-19 vaccines may be only the start of a long journey to rid the disease from the Philippines.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.