Even with Turkey edging closer to mass immunity against the coronavirus through imported vaccines that are widely available in the country, a domestically-developed vaccine is proving wildly popular among volunteers. Health Minister Fahrettin Koca announced that 846,451 people volunteered online for Phase 3 trials of the inactive Turkovac vaccine, far above the 40,800 sought for the last stage of its development.
Phase 3 trials started Tuesday for Turkovac, which is being developed by a group of scientists from Erciyes University in the central province of Kayseri and the Health Institutes of Turkey, an umbrella body of health agencies controlled by the Ministry of Health, which oversees and assists in vaccine creation. The vaccine is among 18 others developed against the deadly disease and is expected to be the first to be available if trials succeed and the Health Ministry approves it. The ministry added a new feature to its e-Nabız (e-Pulse) app, which allows users to track their health, for vaccine volunteers. Volunteers are being chosen among those aged 18 to 55, not infected with COVID-19, not injected with other coronavirus vaccines and not diagnosed with any chronic diseases affecting immunity.
Turkovac reportedly proved its safety and efficacy in two earlier phases and Koca said at the introduction ceremony of the vaccine Tuesday that the formulation would not change for the vaccine he dubbed the “pride of our nation.” The country plans to make it available for public use by the end of this year and eyes exports to other countries.
Turkovac, previously known as ERUCOV-VAC before President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan renamed it Tuesday, was developed in seven months by a team of scientists led by professor Aykut Özdarendeli. It started its Phase I trials in November 2020. Phase II trials began on Feb. 10 and as yet no side effects have been reported among volunteers.
It may also be used for a third dose as a large number of people have already been inoculated with vaccines by China’s Sinovac and Germany’s Pfizer-BioNTech. Sinovac’s CoronaVac is an inactive vaccine like Turkovac, while the Pfizer-BioNTech jab uses messenger RNA (mRNA) technology. Russia's adenoviral-based Sputnik V vaccine is also expected to be included in the country’s vaccine inventory soon.
Turkish scientists are also working on an innovative virus-like particle (VLP) vaccine.
Ankara has received 24.6 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine so far, including more than 20 million in June. Authorities want to secure delivery of over 6 million more doses by the end of this month. Overall, 120 million doses are expected to be delivered by September. So far, the country has received 34.5 million doses of CoronaVac and a batch of 400,000 doses of Sputnik V, according to media reports.
Turkey has administered more than 44 million doses during its inoculation campaign that kicked off in January 2021 and has exceeded the vaccination numbers of most countries. After combating vaccine hesitancy and delays in vaccine imports, it went on to break daily vaccination records, surpassing 1 million per day over the past two weeks. Between May 30 and June 6, a total of 1.8 million people were vaccinated across the country, while this number reached 7.7 million on June 14-20. On June 17, it broke a record with more than 1.5 million jabs administered in one day.
The numbers are a result of the Health Ministry’s inclusion of new groups in the campaign, almost on a daily basis. Though the campaign began with a focus on age, with the oldest citizens vaccinated first, it expanded into occupational groups regardless of age this summer, from teachers to factory workers. Venues were also diversified and the public can now have their jabs in factories, in the fields and orchards where they work, or, as in some cities, at malls or tents set up at busy squares.
Currently, people aged 25 and above are eligible for jabs and the government plans to lower it to 18 by the end of this month.
The Health Ministry recently launched a public awareness campaign under the motto “we roll up our sleeves” to encourage more people to get their jabs. This week, the ministry released videos of celebrities including silver screen legend Şener Şen, actress Ezgi Mola, renowned Turkish-American doctor Mehmet Öz and Emmy-winning actor Haluk Bilginer.
“I have been waiting for this for a long time,” 25-year-old Utkan Tekin said, as he had his first dose of coronavirus vaccine at Ankara City Hospital in the capital Wednesday. “The whole world is getting vaccinated. We have to end this pandemic,” Tekin said, calling fellow youth to have their jabs. “I did not feel pain or side effects. Please do not be afraid.” He told Anadolu Agency (AA) that younger people who socialize more spread the virus more and should be vaccinated as soon as possible.
Not everyone supports the campaign though, as the country takes on anti-vaxxers, skeptics and people who are reluctant, encouraging them to get inoculated. Conspiracy theories proliferating on social media are driving an anti-vaccine campaign. Some companies that are urging their employees to get jabs have drawn the ire of anti-vaxxers who, among others things, claim the vaccines cause infertility, disregarding scientific studies on the absence of the vaccines' harmful effects. BIM, one of Turkey's largest discount store chains, was the latest target of an anti-vaccination campaign that claimed it forced employees to get vaccinated. The company denied the claims.
Vaccine hesitancy may linger but better days are ahead with more doses, according to professor Mustafa Necmi Ilhan, who is a member of the Health Ministry’s Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board. He says Turkey needs to have 50 million people vaccinated with both doses to achieve genuine relief from the pandemic. So far, more than 14.6 million people have had both doses.
He said Turkey has been achieving results from its lockdown measures and that its number of cases has been around 5,000 or 6,000 for most of the past month. “The vaccination is on a good level. Personal protection measures and swift vaccination will help our fight against the pandemic,” he told AA Wednesday.
The professor noted that access to the vaccine has also vastly improved and next week, every individual eligible for the vaccine will be able to get inoculated anywhere, from clinics to outdoor venues.
However, he said vaccination will not eliminate the pandemic entirely while appreciating Turkey's vaccination drive as a country “at the center of the world, where people travel to and from a lot.” But still, vaccinations give people the opportunity to experience infection at a reduced capacity as even vaccinated people can get infected.
The “fatality potential is also very low,” he added. “With more people vaccinated, the lesser the infections will be in severity. After a while, the virus will be unable to find new hosts.”
Ilhan also warned about a potential rise in the number of cases after restrictions are eased further starting July 1. On Monday, Erdoğan announced that all lockdowns and curfews would be lifted on that date while restrictions on intercity and innercity travel would also be removed. “We will see whether there will be a rise and whether they would be confined to some regions or would increase nationwide due to a variant,” he said. Erdoğan called on the public not to abandon measures like masks, social distancing and hygiene even as the vaccination numbers increase and there are fewer new cases daily.
Touching on the mandatory mask rule, something the majority of the public expects to be lifted, Ilhan said people should continue wearing masks in crowded places but they can remove them outdoors, if they have received both doses of the vaccine and if they can keep at least 2 meters (6.5 feet) distance from others, in parks and other venues.
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