Philippines Embraces Russian Offer of Free COVID-19 Vaccine

Aie Balagtas See and Basilio Sepe
Manila
2020-08-11
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200811-RU-vaccine-1000.JPG This handout photo shows samples of a vaccine against the coronavirus disease developed by the Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology, in Moscow, Aug. 6, 2020.
[Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF)/Handout via Reuters]

The Philippines, which now has the highest number of coronavirus cases in East Asia, is welcoming an offer by Moscow to be among the first nations to receive free supplies of a Russian-developed COVID-19 vaccine.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said he would even volunteer to take part in human trials of this vaccine, as countries worldwide race to develop a vaccine against the virus that has spread like a wild fire to all corners of the globe.

On Tuesday, the Russian government announced it had registered the world’s first vaccine against the novel coronavirus disease – Sputnik V – the state-run TASS news agency reported. The vaccine is named after the first man-made satellite, which the Soviet Union launched into orbit at the dawn of the Space Race in 1957.

Meanwhile in Indonesia, which lags just behind the Philippines in total confirmed coronavirus cases in the region, the government said it had started human trials on a potential COVID-19 vaccine being jointly developed with a Chinese firm, Sinovac Biotech.

During a late-night cabinet meeting in Manila on Monday, Duterte revealed that his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, had promised that the Philippines would be included in a first set of countries to get supplies of the vaccine developed by the Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow.

“I am very happy because Russia is our friend,” Duterte said during the meeting, transcripts of which were released Tuesday. “They do not consider us enemies. We do not have a quarrel with Russia.”

“They promised to give us a vaccine for free,” he added. “So now, we will accept this help but we would have to negotiate the amount of supply we would need.”

He said was willing to serve as a guinea pig in tests of Sputnik V on people in the Philippines.

“When the vaccine arrives, I will have myself injected in public. Experiment on me first. That is fine with me,” he said.

Russia, through its ambassador to Manila, Igor Khovaev, recently said it that scientists in his country had discovered a “safe” coronavirus vaccine, and that Moscow would be ready to share it with its allies.

The plan to tap Russia came weeks after Duterte said he had also asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to prioritize the Philippines when Beijing rolls out its own vaccine against the coronavirus disease.

The virus has infected more than 20 million people and killed at least 700,000 across the globe, according to U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University. The Philippines has nearly 140,000 confirmed cases nationwide with a death toll of 2,312. On Monday, the government recorded 6,958 new cases – the highest total reported in a single day.

The number of deaths from the disease in the Philippines is more than half of the toll recorded so far in Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s most populous country, where nearly 130,000 cases had been detected as of Tuesday, according to data from Johns Hopkins.

On Tuesday, 19 volunteers became the first people in Indonesia to take part in trials of the vaccine being jointly developed by a state-owned firm, Bio Farma, and Sinovac Biotech, official said.

As many as 1,620 people, who range from 18 to 59 years old and live in Bandung, the capital of West Java province, will take part in the trial that will last up to six months, officials said. By early September, scientists hope to have vaccinated more than 400 volunteers with the experimental medicine, said Rodman Tarigan, spokesman for the clinical trial team.

“I hope that this trial will be smooth and successful. The trial is targeted to be complete within six months,” said Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.

“With our capabilities and experiences, I think we can immediately produce a COVID-19 vaccine.”

COVID-19 diplomacy

In the Philippines, President Duterte has vowed an independent foreign policy and distanced himself from the United States, his country’s traditional ally, since he took office in 2016. He has aligned himself with traditional rivals, Russia and China, and has visited both countries multiple times in the last four years.

On Monday, he took a swipe at the U.S., saying his government would have to pay for vaccines being developed by American firms.

However, during a visit to Taiwan on Tuesday, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar voiced doubts about the safety of Russia’s newly developed vaccine.

“The point is not be the first with a vaccine,” Azar said in an interview with ABC News. “The point is to have a vaccine that is safe and effective for the American people and the people of the world.”

During the cabinet meeting, Duterte also said he would help Russia choose a Philippine partner to distribute the drug. “We will ask them to choose their people so they can work expeditiously,” Duterte said. “We are extremely grateful.”

The president said he was confident that Russia would roll out its vaccine for clinical trials by September or October.

“Let’s be patient, we just have to wait a little while,” Duterte said. “By December, I said, in the fullness of God’s time, we will hopefully have a COVID-free December and we can enjoy this Christmas season.”

Tia Asmara contributed to this report from Jakarta.

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