As coronavirus cases climb, Turks ask: ‘Where is the vaccine?’

As Turkey’s number of daily coronavirus cases remain high, many are now asking when they will start seeing a vaccination campaign in their country.

The first batch of 3 million doses of CoronaVac, a vaccine developed by Chinese company Sinovac Biotech, arrived in Turkey on Dec. 30, but authorities have not yet announced when public vaccinations will begin. When asked by reporters, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declined to state an exact date that vaccinations would start, saying simply instead that they would begin soon. 

While Turks continue to struggle with persistently high case numbers, vaccine campaigns by other countries are well underway since the first vaccines were approved for use.

In the United States, one million Americans have already been vaccinated as of the end of December after the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was approved that month. On Jan. 8, the European Commission announced plans to buy 300 million doses of the vaccine. 

Other countries have also stepped up their efforts to increase their vaccination numbers. Israel boasts the highest vaccination rate in the world to date, and Arab nations in the Persian Gulf began vaccinating their populations for the last month. Russia, the first country to announce registration of a COVID-19 vaccine in August, claims 100,000 Russians are vaccinated daily and has announced plans to supply doses to a number of countries. 

Some Turks are beginning to question why their country has fallen behind its international counterparts. On Twitter, a hashtag called “Where’s the vaccine?” has taken off with members of the Future Party using it to air their frustration with the lack of a vaccine. Ahmet Davutoglu, the Future Party’s leader and a former prime minister under Erdoğan, called vaccination a “matter of national security” and criticised the government for failing to start vaccinating people.

“You said the vaccination will start on Dec. 11. One month has passed, the vaccination has not started,” Davutoglu said in an interview with The Independent Turkish. “Can the management, who even looks at the vaccine issue as income, solve this health issue?”

Serkan Özcan, the Future Party’s spokesman, also lambasted the current policy as incapable of delivering on the government’s promises. 

“If we take the word of the health minister seriously, we are not short of vaccines at this time,” Özcan said on Twitter. “We will not allow the health and the economy of the nation to be tampered with, nor will we allow the vaccine agenda be destroyed by artificial issues.”

Turkey announced plans to receive 50 million doses of CoronaVac on Dec. 11, but the deal has been beset by problems related to delivery and cost. The original shipment had to be postponed following a surge in cases inside China that affected customs operations; it was later reported that Turkey had purchased its doses at a higher cost than other importers. 

Another reason why the Chinese deal has become controversial is a lingering question on whether China would use CoronaVac as a means to pressure Turkey to ratify an extradition treaty signed with Beijing. The treaty, if ratified, raises concerns that Turkey would begin extraditing Uyghur refugees to China where they are at risk of being sent to mass detention camps where an estimated one million people are being held. 

CoronaVac is not the only vaccine Turkey has expressed interest in acquiring. On Dec. 25, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca announced a plan to produce half a million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech with an option of producing up to 30 million by March.

Turkey has also held consultations with Russia to acquire the right to produce Sputnik V domestically and has conducted its own trials of the Russian vaccine. A local vaccine is also under development which the government says will be ready for use by April 2021.

With different options on the table, the question remains why Turks do not have access to a vaccine until now. When asked last month about a delay in acquiring the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, Koca blamed liability issues related to the order. Similarly, he has been noncommittal about acquiring the doses from Russia until they pass clinical tests by Turkish regulators. 

Turkey has recorded 2,317,118 cases and 22,631 deaths related to the coronavirus since its first case was reported in March, according to official data.