Despite rising daily cases due to the highly contagious delta and mu variants, Turkey appears committed to eliminating the COVID-19 disease. The country has administered nearly 105 million coronavirus vaccine jabs since the launch of an immunization drive in January, official figures showed on Sunday.
Some 52.6 million people have gotten their first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, while more than 41.9 million are fully vaccinated, the Health Ministry said.
The data showed that 84.74% of the country's adult population has received at least one dose of a two-shot vaccine.
Turkey has also given third booster shots to over 9.7 million people.
Separately, the ministry reported 26,161 new coronavirus cases, while as many as 221 more people lost their fight against the disease in the last 24 hours.
As many as 335,244 tests for the virus were done over the past day.
"Case numbers should be compared with the average from one week ago, not the day before," Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said on Twitter.
He urged everyone to follow the measures to curb the virus' spread and get vaccinated.
Turkey started administering CoronaVac jabs to health care personnel in January, and the president himself was vaccinated with the inactive vaccine. Later, authorities also started giving the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to citizens who opted for it.
The country once ranked sixth in terms of vaccination in the world, but the drive has somewhat slowed down, now ranking eighth globally.
Health Minister Koca also previously underlined the importance of booster shots.
As Turkey seeks to ramp up the numbers in its COVID-19 vaccination program, the minister urged the public to get their third dose of vaccine.
COVID-19 booster shots increase protection against the disease, Koca said. In a written statement issued after a virtual meeting of the Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board that advises the government on pandemic measures, Koca said people who have received three shots account for less than 2% of the overall COVID-19 cases in the country. Nearly 90% of active cases in hospitals are people who have not been vaccinated or received only one jab, he explained. It is also expected that those who received two doses of mRNA vaccines will require a booster shot five to six months after being administered the second dose, he said.
"About 6 million of our citizens are eligible to receive their booster shots," Koca stated, calling on the public to "not waste time" getting vaccinated.
A domestically produced COVID-19 vaccine – Turkovac – was developed by scientists at Erciyes University in Turkey and started its Phase 3 human trials in June. The inactive vaccine is now at the emergency-use approval phase, and Health Minister Koca announced that its mass production would likely begin in October once it gains approval.
The officials have announced that they were already in talks with other countries to carry out Phase 3 trials of Turkovac. Vice President Fuat Oktay also confirmed that negotiations were continuing with Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Argentina, Colombia and Poland, among others, to bring trials to those countries. “We are working hard to make our locally made vaccine available not only to our nation but for all of humanity,” Oktay told Anadolu Agency (AA). He noted that international trials would help Turkovac become recognized internationally.
“The experience we gained with the process of Turkovac will also help us to introduce new locally made vaccines to the international community,” Oktay said.
Two key steps to counter the coronavirus – getting fully vaccinated and complying with the individual safety measures – will prevent new variants from emerging, a Turkish infectious diseases physician also warned previously.
Speaking to AA, Dr. Ismail Balık, head of the Infectious Diseases Department at Ankara University, said that the mu variant of the coronavirus recently reported in Turkey and the other variants that may emerge are important, but there is no need for concern as they are closely monitored across the world. Koca on Monday announced that two cases of the mu variant were found in Turkey, adding that the ministry does not intend to implement any additional measures at the moment. First discovered in Colombia in January 2021, the mu variant continues to spread in the South American country, where it accounts for 39% of infections, while in Ecuador it accounts for 13% of cases. Although its global prevalence stands at less than 0.1%, the variant has been detected in 39 countries to date.
The mu variant is the World Health Organization's fifth "variant to watch closely," Balık underscored, adding that the virus mutates as it finds a medium of transmission. The transmission rate of the mu variant is currently thought to be at least on par with the delta variant, he said. He stressed that in order to prevent new variants and COVID-19 waves from emerging, people need to get fully vaccinated, wear masks, observe social distancing and follow hygiene measures. "The increase in the number of cases triggers the emergence of new variants. Vaccination is the most powerful weapon in preventing this," he said. Noting that the daily number of new COVID-19 cases in Turkey has fluctuated around 20,000 "for a long time," Balık said there are over 500,000 active cases across the country.
He underlined that with the start of in-person education in Turkey and increased mobility, such as people returning from holiday to metropolitan cities, there is a risk there will be a rise in new infections unless measures are taken. "We have two weapons at our disposal to prevent further increases in the number of cases; vaccines and precautions," he said. "If 80%-85% of all citizens over the age of 12 receive the full dose of vaccines, the emergence of new variants and the growth of the pandemic will be prevented," the physician emphasized.
Turkey has switched to a new stage in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Soon, regular polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests will be required for the unvaccinated public for travel and entrance to certain venues. In light of these developments, a digital vaccine pass applied in the United States and some European countries has widespread support in Turkey, according to a new survey.
The survey, conducted by the Turkish Confederation of Employer Associations (TISK), interviewed employees in the service sector and those who worked from home during the pandemic about their opinions on vaccination and measures against COVID-19. Three out of every four people interviewed for the survey, which covered some 2,000 people, supported a vaccine pass in the country. Currently, the Health Ministry offers unique codes for each individual that documents their status as COVID-19 infected or uninfected. A digital app by the ministry also confirms the vaccination status of users.
A vaccine pass allows checking people for their vaccination status and whether they have a negative PCR test result. Eight out of 10 people interviewed agree with the idea of barring people from public spaces if they cannot prove they are vaccinated or not infected. The same majority of interviewees also called for legal sanctions against people who reject getting vaccinated. They also support employers’ restrictions against those who refuse to get vaccinated even if they are properly informed about the benefits of vaccination. On vaccine hesitancy or outright rejection, the survey delved into this mindset. The unvaccinated interviewees justified their opposition mostly with concerns over safety and side effects of vaccines while the rest said they were influenced by opinions of people around them against vaccination.
As with many parts of the globe, anti-vaxxers continue their fearmongering efforts in Turkey too, leading to more infections and death.
The Istanbul Governorate recently greenlit a rally that brought together hard-line anti-vaxxers in the city’s Maltepe Square. The rally, the brainchild of a small political party, drew nearly 3,000 people according to organizers, while scientists slammed the event. Anatolian Union Party (ABP) first faced a ban from the Maltepe District Governorate, but the Istanbul Governorate later approved the rally.
Although vaccine hesitancy is believed to be higher in Turkey than outright vaccine opposition, anti-vaxxers found support over social media since the coronavirus pandemic made its foray into Turkey in 2020. They do not categorize themselves as anti-vaxxers and claim they are not opposing the vaccines but rather the “enforcing of a commercial liquid” onto the masses, as ABP chair Bedri Yalçın told radio channel Radyo Sputnik (RS FM) Thursday.
The “Great Awakening Rally” was attended by prominent vaccine opponents, including columnist Abdurrahman Dilipak and several anti-vaccine doctors. The rally was the first of its kind in terms of size, though an anti-vaxxer doctor had managed to rally a few dozen people in Istanbul’s Üsküdar district in June.
The event drew widespread condemnation from doctors and scientists who had repeatedly been calling on the public to get their vaccines for months. Professor Necmettin Ünal, an academic from Ankara University faculty of medicine, believes the anti-vaxxers' actions should be viewed as “a crime against society.”
“These people should be handed down severe sentences. All nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) should stand up against them. Anti-vaxxers commit the crime of manslaughter with false information they spread. In addition, a gathering of a large number of the unvaccinated in one place may only worsen the pandemic,” he told the Hürriyet newspaper.
Ünal said that while he respects the views of people hesitant to get vaccinated, the anti-vaccination movement is “something else.”
“You cannot take someone seriously if they say that the vaccination is ‘a plot to annihilate the Turkish race.’ Anti-vaxxers also have their own agenda of profiting from this movement. I know some anti-vaxxers, using their public image as physicians, market their own ‘products’ against coronavirus at astronomical fees,” he said.
Professor Mustafa Çetiner, an internal diseases expert, said the rally would be “a grenade counting down to explosion.”
“These people are not vaccinated and reject tests, masks and social distancing. This is a public health risk. I cannot say it is their democratic right,” he told Hürriyet. Çetiner added that doctors who attended the rally should be sanctioned by the Health Ministry.
Since December 2019, the pandemic has claimed over 4.68 million lives in at least 192 countries and regions, with almost 227.8 million cases reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University.