Turkey moved on to a new chapter in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic as health care workers started taking jabs of CoronaVac, developed by China’s Sinovac, in an inoculation drive that began Thursday.
The country’s Medicines and Medical Devices Agency (TITCK) on Wednesday approved the emergency use of the vaccine. The approval came after a 14-day testing period, which began when the first shipment of the vaccine, containing 3 million doses, arrived in the country on Dec. 30. "Following scientific inspections and evaluations, the vaccine has been authorized for emergency use," the TITCK said in a statement. The samples of the vaccine were tested in accordance with the routine quality control processes applied all over the world, the Ministry of Health previously said in a statement. Analyses were conducted to check the expected quality, effectiveness and reliability of the vaccine when it is stored and applied under conditions defined by the company throughout its shelf life.
Health Minister Fahrettin Koca and members of the ministry’s Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board were the first to get shots late Wednesday. In the early hours of Thursday, mass vaccination started for thousands of health care workers across the country.
"Our citizens will be able to track the progress of the vaccination campaign on our website. We aim to have a transparent process," Koca said Wednesday. The minister explained that each vaccine would be assigned to a person for inoculation and the QR codes on the boxes would prevent the shots from being injected into someone else. "We want to assure our people that the distribution of the vaccines will be just and in accordance with guidelines created by the Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board. The people who get their turn will be notified and they will schedule an appointment to receive their shots," he said. Koca said the start of the vaccination campaign marked the beginning of "brighter days." "Because the most effective way to protect against this disease is with vaccines. We need to all get vaccinated to return to our normal lives," he said.
Last month, Turkish researchers said CoronaVac showed a 91.25% efficacy based on an interim analysis of 29 cases. A fuller analysis can take place when they reach 40 cases.
The vaccine will be administered by the Health Ministry's COVID-19 vaccine application units, which will be established in family health centers, as well as in private and university hospitals, according to the Health Services Directorate.
Health care workers are prioritized in the vaccination drive as they are in the highest-risk group. Since the pandemic made its foray into Turkey last March, they remain at the frontline in the fight against the outbreak, either at hospitals, clinics, in ambulances and tracking down the patients and their contacts in door-to-door visits. After health care workers, people 65 and older will be next to get vaccine shots. It will be followed by adults living in group housing, like nursing homes. People working in critical professions with the risk of infection, will be vaccinated next. A later group will include employees of the Ministry of National Defense, including soldiers, Interior Ministry staff, including police officers enforcing coronavirus measures, and employees at prisons, bakeries, catering companies, food factories, water treatment plants and logistics companies. Next in line will be people above the age of 50 and those with a chronic disease. Other members of the public will be delivered shots gradually.
Turkey is home to some 1.1 million health care workers. An online appointment system, already in use for hospital visits, is added with a new feature for vaccine appointments. All hospitals and clinics set up separate rooms for vaccination and those places will accept people who will be vaccinated by appointment only to prevent crowding. Those who were infected and recovered from the virus do not need to get vaccinated in the four to six months after recovery. As of October, the latest month with available data, some 40,000 health care workers had tested positive for the virus since March. The vaccine will be delivered in two doses with an interval of 28 days between two. People eligible for vaccination will be informed about the start of mass vaccination for them through a new feature added to e-nabız, a personal health app by Health Ministry where citizens can check their medical history and their medical appointments are stored in. The feature also provides a link for vaccine appointments.
Over 100,000 health care staff received the first doses of the vaccine, Minister Koca announced Thursday.
‘Vaccine is needed’
One of the first places where vaccination started was at Sancaktepe Şehit Professor Dr. Ilhan Varank Training and Research Hospital in Istanbul, one of the largest pandemic hospitals in the city, which has long been a pandemic hot spot. Some 30 clinics were set up to administer the vaccine at the hospital. Chief physician Nurettin Yiyit said the hospital could vaccinate around 1,800 people per day and that its 3,500 staff, including nurses and janitors, could be vaccinated in two days. "We spent around 10 months in white overalls, supporting people as they struggle for life. Health workers know very well that this situation cannot be taken lightly and that the vaccine is needed," Yiyit said. "There is a serious inclination among health workers to get vaccinated. We have a social responsibility because our getting vaccinated will encourage others," Yiyit said. “Turkey has a capacity to vaccinate up to 1.2 million people daily, but it also has an infrastructure that can increase it to 2 million,” he said.
Turkey boasts a strong cold chain infrastructure for the timely, regulated, safe delivery of vaccines. Vaccines are delivered in trucks fitted with special cold storage and a tracking system, enabling the authorities to monitor the entire process. The country launched a Vaccine Tracking System in 2014 to monitor all processes involving vaccines. Using the QR codes required in the country on vaccine doses against any illness, authorities have the ability to monitor storage, delivery and expiration dates as well as intervene at any point along the way.
Professor Hasan Tezer, a member of the Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board, told Demirören News Agency (DHA) on Thursday that the vaccination work would continue between 8 a.m. and 12 a.m. daily and during the weekend. He said they aimed to complete the vaccination of health care workers in a few days.
Not a quick end to pandemic
Apart from CoronaVac, authorities seek to acquire other vaccines as well. They are in talks for Russia's Sputnik V vaccine and the shot developed by Pfizer and BioNTech and are working to develop vaccines domestically. Experts say the mass inoculation campaign does not mean that the pandemic is over and warn that the public must continue to adhere to the rules, even for a while after the vaccination drive ends.
Authorities reintroduced restrictions lifted last summer after the coronavirus cases surged in the first months of last autumn. The latest figures showed the restrictions, from the closure of restaurants and cafes to nighttime curfews on weekdays and a 56-hour lockdown over the weekends, largely worked. The number of daily cases dropped below 10,000 as of Wednesday. The overall number of cases stands at 2.3 million since March, while fatalities exceeded 23,000. The number of recoveries reached 2.2 million, on the other hand, while the total number of tests is now at 26.7 million.
“Many diseases were eliminated through vaccines and we hope the same will apply to the coronavirus,” Tezer says. “Unfortunately, the virus still continues its movement throughout the world. As long as it spreads, it mutates. We have to stop its activity and this is possible by having people developing immunity against it. Up to 80% of society needs to be immune to end the outbreak. Vaccination will help achieve the immunity,” he underlined.