The Philippines has said it will launch clinical trials of Russia’s Covid-19 vaccine after the country endorsed the controversial jab, as President Rodrigo Duterte vowed to be one of the first injected with it.
Mr Duterte’s spokesman said on Thursday that trials would begin in October and, if they were successful, the Sputnik V vaccine would be registered for public use by April 2021.
The president would be administered with the vaccine by May 1 at the earliest, said spokesman Harry Roque, confirming the Philippine leader’s vow earlier this week that he would be “the first to be injected on”.
“It’s not a metaphorical statement,” said Mr Roque in an online briefing with journalists. “He is willing to undergo it.”
Russia this week became the first country to grant regulatory approval to a coronavirus vaccine, but experts outside the country voiced doubts about its ability to develop and approve it safely.
The Philippines has become one of the first nations to endorse it. Russia’s sovereign wealth fund said on Wednesday that the Brazilian state of Parana had agreed to produce Sputnik V for “distribution in Brazil and other Latin American countries”, in a further sign of demand.
Mr Duterte said on Monday that Russia, which he described as “our friend”, had agreed to supply the vaccine to the south-east Asian country for free. “I think this is President Putin’s way of helping us, by giving it for free,” the Philippine president said in a speech.
Since taking power in 2016, the populist leader has reoriented the Philippines’ foreign policy away from its traditional ally the US and towards China and Russia.
Mr Roque said that health officials would review Russia’s phase one and phase two clinical trials of the vaccine before conducting its own phase three clinical trial between October and March. Russia would fund the Philippine trial, he added.
Analysts said Mr Duterte’s decision to embrace Sputnik V was bold, but could backfire for a president who before the pandemic was one of the most popular in Philippine history.
Mr Duterte in March imposed one of the region’s strictest community quarantines to prevent the spread of Covid-19. The Philippines was the first country outside China to report a death from coronavirus.
The president last month said that he had asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to help the country get priority access to a vaccine.
“I think Duterte’s strategy is a vaccine or nothing,” said Richard Heydarian, a political analyst and author of a book on the leader. “This guy has gone from typical populist dismissiveness toward the crisis to becoming one of the world’s biggest supporters of lockdowns.”
The Russian vaccine is likely to be met in the Philippines, one of the Asian countries hardest hit by Covid-19, with both hope and scepticism given previous experiences. The country in 2018 suspended Sanofi’s Dengvaxia dengue vaccine after Philippine officials linked it to a spate of illnesses and deaths. The French drugmaker has insisted the vaccine is safe.
The Philippines recently surpassed Indonesia as the south-east Asian country with the highest number of recorded infections, although the latter has reported more deaths.
Additional reporting by Henry Foy in Moscow
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