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As Turkey rolls out its own COVID-19 vaccine, questions loom over its efficacy

Screenshot from DW video news segment.

Turkey joined the list of countries developing their own vaccine against COVID-19 in November 2020. In December 2021, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan approved Turkovac for emergency use as a booster vaccine. However, as medical professionals began delivering jabs, in the absence of publicly available data from the Phase-3 trials, some experts are hesitant, saying it is too early to comment on its effectiveness.

Meanwhile, the number of newly infected patients has skyrocketed in the country in recent weeks due to the new Omicron variant, reaching 65,000 as of January 11. So far, the country has administered over 130 million vaccines for first, second, and third doses according to official statistics. Around 80 percent of the country's population has received at least two vaccine doses of vaccine. The ruling government hopes that the national vaccine, will help boost trust in vaccines and encourage more people to get vaccinated.

The national vaccine, Turkovac was developed by the University of Erciyes, the Ministry of Health, and the Presidency of Turkish Health Institutes. Phase 1 of trials began in November 2020. At the time the trials were carried out on 44 volunteers. Phase 2 and 3 were carried out in February 2021 and June 2021 respectively. Originally named ERUCOV-VAC, President Erdoğan renamed it Turkovac in June 2021. Before the national vaccine was completed, Turkey was administering Sinovac and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines. According to Bloomberg, “Turkovac uses inactivated viruses to boost immunity, rather than the messenger RNA technology that’s the basis of inoculations made by Pfizer-BioNTech SE and Moderna Inc.”

But its hasty rollout raised questions around its trustworthiness.

The COVID working group at the Turkish Medical Association issued a statement saying, “The ministry's statements that a vaccine is considered safe and effective in the absence of the published scientific study results and discussions in scientific environments, will unfortunately increase existing vaccine hesitancy.” The association added that while the homegrown vaccine could help control the pandemic globally and at home, it should only be approved for emergency use until rigorous evaluations are completed and the results are made public. The group urged the Ministry of Health to share the results of trials with the public to avoid increasing anti-vaccine sentiments.

Şebnem Korur Fincancı, the Turkish Medical Association Chairwoman, encouraged authorities to share data on Phase 3 trials in an interview with the Diken news website. “We can then understand how the vaccine was received an emergency use approval. Because, based on the data we have at the moment, the vaccine does not look suitable for an emergency use.”

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) website lists the national vaccine under Phase 2 trial.

Fincancı's reservations follow reassurances by Professor Ateş Kara, the director of the Turkish Vaccine Institute and a member of the Health Ministry’s scientific board on COVID-19, who previously told the state news agency that, “there is a rapid jump in the antibody levels [produced by the national vaccine] in studies where Turkovac is applied as a booster shot.”

Hacettepe University Faculty Member Mehmet Ceyhan disagrees. In an interview with Sozcu newspaper, Ceyhan told Sozcu newspaper that making conclusions based on antibodies and in the absence of Phase 3 trial data, is nonsensical. “Human health is at stake here. Without any sufficient data, I cannot say ‘use this vaccine or do this instead of that.’ I must see the findings of Phase 3 trials, and the so-called ‘jumping antibody level’ before making any evaluation.”

Despite the criticisms, the Minister of Health, Fahrettin Koca, received the Turkovac booster shot live during a press conference on December 29, 2021, together with other members of the Health Ministry’s scientific board.

Together with our members from the Scientific Committee we are receiving our vaccine Turkovac for booster.

Meanwhile, following the latest Health Ministry’s scientific board on COVID-19 meeting on January 5, the Ministry of Health reduced the quarantine period for patients infected with the virus to seven days. Previously the quarantine period was 10 days but with the rise of the Delta variant, it was raised to 14. The measures also include following the rules of social distancing, wearing masks, spending less time indoors, as well as calling on citizens to receive booster shots. No further restrictions were announced.

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