The challenges facing Turkey's COVID-19 vaccination programme

As the number of daily COVID-19 cases in Turkey remains high, many are now asking when they will start seeing a vaccination campaign in the country.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said mass vaccinations against would begin on Thursday or Friday in Turkey.

So, is Turkey late in starting its vaccination programme compared to other countries? How many doses of vaccine were brought to Turkey? What percentage of the population needs to be vaccinated? Is the Chinese-made vaccine reliable?

Turkish Medical Association (TTB) Secretary General Professor Vedat Bulut responded to these questions as the guest of Gülten Sarı on the Konuşa Konuşa podcast.

Bulut said that a 30-day delay cannot be considered as being too late since we are faced with a crisis that concerns the whole world and that the capacity of the medical institutions is well known.

While Turks continue to struggle with persistently high case numbers, vaccine campaigns by other countries have been well underway since the first vaccines were approved for use.

In the United States, one million Americans have already been vaccinated as of the end of December since the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was approved earlier that month. On Jan. 8, the European Commission announced plans to buy 300 million doses of the vaccine.

Other countries have also stepped up their efforts to increase their vaccination numbers. Israel boasts the highest vaccination rate in the world to date, and Arab nations in the Gulf began vaccinating their populations in the last month.

Russia, the first country to announce the registration of a COVID-19 vaccine in August, claims 100,000 citizens are being vaccinated daily and has announced plans to supply doses to a number of other countries.

Bulut noted that China’s Sinovac vaccine, set for use in Turkey, can be trusted on one condition: the phase three trial of the vaccine should be completed, and the results shared with the public in the form of a scientific study.

Turkey’s Minister of Health Fahrettin Koca said on Jan. 7 that the Brazilian Sinovac trial showed an efficacy rate of 78 percent in moderate cases and 100 percent efficacy in severe cases. And Turkish health officials have said the interim results of their own stage three trials of the vaccine showed a 91.25 percent efficacy rate on volunteers between the ages of 18 and 59.

However, Reuters reported on Monday that the vaccine, developed by Chinese company Sinovac Biotech, had shown a general efficacy rate of less than 60 percent in Brazil’s clinical trial.

Bulut revealed that the vaccination campaign in Turkey is expected to finish by the end of July, but in a worst-case scenario could continue until the end of December, adding that Turkey has so far received 3 million doses of the vaccine.

Noting that the vaccine has begun to be shipped to cold storages in some provinces, Bulut said it was important to vaccinate 65 to 70 percent of the population.

According to Koca, Turkey has struck a deal with Sinovac to buy 50 million doses of the vaccine and would inoculate about 9 million people in the first phase.

But Bulut said that those quantities would not be enough to meet the necessary scale of the vaccination campaign: "In Turkey, 65 to 70 million people will need (the vaccine), which means we need 120 million doses.”

Bulut also raised concerns over the logistical challenges involved in vaccinating that many people: “We are told that 50 million doses of the vaccine will arrive in Turkey by the end of February. But the first batch of (3 million doses) was due to arrive in the country on Dec. 11 and was delayed to between Dec. 28 and 29.”

“Then there is a problem with the budget. We know well that the salaries of pharmacist, suppliers and doctors were not paid in November to December. The (healthcare) budget was running low even before the start of the virus. We are faced with a budget that is not prepared for bad scenarios."

Turkey has recorded 2,317,118 cases and 22,631 deaths related COVID-19 since its first case was reported in March, according to official data