The number of daily COVID-19 cases in Turkey has decreased to below 10,000 for the first time since the beginning of the March 1 nationwide lockdown, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said Thursday.
After a meeting of the country's Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board, Koca said in a press conference that the daily cases are now below 10,000 after a 17-day full lockdown that ended early this week, also noting that the vaccination rate for over-65s has reached 84%.
According to health ministry data, Turkey recorded 9,385 new coronavirus infections and 207 daily deaths due to COVID-19 on Thursday. While around 219,000 coronavirus tests were carried out across the country over the past 24 hours, the total number of coronavirus cases since the pandemic’s start in the country stood at 5,160,423 – while the total death toll increased to 45,626.
The data also showed that 9,271 people have recovered from COVID-19 in the past day, increasing the total number of recoveries in the country to 4,989,787.
With the declining coronavirus cases thanks to a strict lockdown in Turkey, the country entered a 15-day period of gradual lifting of restrictions as of early Monday.
The 17-day full lockdown, which covered the remainder of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, as well as three days of Ramadan Bayram, also known as Eid al-Fitr, ended as of 5 a.m. local time Monday.
Koca said that Turkey has the potential to vaccinate more than 1.5 million people per day and the national COVID-19 vaccine will enter Phase 3 trials at the beginning of June.
If the trials conclude successfully, the national vaccine may be used via emergency use approval by September, the health minister noted.
Turkey will continue vaccinating people gradually, going down to age 20 in June if there is no problem with vaccine supplies, he added.
Turkey started administering CoronaVac jabs to health care personnel in January and the president himself was vaccinated with the inactive vaccine. Recently, authorities also started giving the option of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to citizens eligible for vaccinations. Media reports also said that authorities were in talks to acquire the Moderna vaccine.
The country once ranked sixth in terms of vaccination in the world but the drive has somewhat slowed down. Experts tie it to challenges in vaccine deliveries, something the health minister recently has partly acknowledged as well. But authorities are also concerned that anti-vaxxers and vaccine skeptics may be affecting the inoculation drive.
Despite the success in decreasing COVID-19 cases, experts urge vigilance. According to a member of Turkey’s Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board, for the success to become long-term, people will need to keep their guard up and continue wearing masks while socially distancing, even if they are fully vaccinated.
A professor and the head of infectious diseases and clinical microbiology at Çukurova University, Yeşim Taşova, told Anadolu Agency (AA) Thursday that people need to be aware of the fact that vaccines do not prevent new infections, and that they mostly work to reduce the severity of the coronavirus.
“The vaccines won’t protect you from getting infected. There are also mutations, just like the flu virus. We have seen vaccinated people go through a mild case of COVID-19 if they get infected, but they can still get infected,” Taşova said.
“Therefore, we can see how important vaccinations are in the fight against the pandemic. But we also need to find an effective treatment, which is still currently unavailable for COVID-19,” she added.
Despite the success of vaccines in reducing mortality and hospitalization rates, people still need to protect themselves from contracting the virus, she warned.
Meanwhile, another expert, professor Füsun Saygılı, warned against obesity, saying that it exacerbates the implications of COVID-19 for hospitalized patients.
“Studies conducted on the coronavirus, which has been affecting the world for about 18 months, has shown that approximately half of those hospitalized due to COVID-19 have obesity,” she noted.
Joining the press conference virtually, Ugur Şahin, the CEO and co-founder of BioNTech, said they want to send 30 million vaccine doses to Turkey by the end of June.
Şahin, who comes from a Turkish family that immigrated to Germany, added that they would complete sending all 120 million doses in July, August and September.
"We will work day and night to send vaccines to Turkey on time," Şahin added.
Turkey signed an agreement with Pfizer-BioNTech Thursday to purchase 90 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by the company, with an option for 30 million additional doses.
Stressing that he felt "proud" of his home country when he heard about the vaccination work being carried out in Turkey, Şahin said they want to both produce vaccines and do research and development in Turkey.
Underlining that they tried the vaccine on more than 30 virus variants, Şahin said it also works against mutations.
"We also tested the Indian mutation this week. Our vaccine has 25-30% efficiency against the Indian variant. We expect 70-75% protection from infection," he said.
Stressing that high antibodies are achieved after the first dose of the BioNTech vaccine in those who have been infected, Şahin said that this antibody level is the same as people who were not infected and received two vaccine doses.
He suggested that third doses should be given in 2022, six to nine months after the second doses.
Since December 2019, the pandemic has claimed over 3.41 million lives in 192 countries and regions, with nearly 165 million cases reported worldwide, according to figures compiled by the United States' Johns Hopkins University.
The U.S., India and Brazil remain the worst-hit countries in terms of the number of infections.
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