By Umar Farooq
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Just over a half of Pakistan's health workers have received a COVID-19 shot since inoculations began last month, while a poll released on Friday suggested nearly half had concerns over China's Sinopharm, the only vaccine available so far.
Pakistan had distributed 504,400 Sinopharm vaccine doses to provincial authorities by Feb. 20, and 230,000 frontline health workers had received a shot by Friday, according to health minister Faisal Sultan.
In January, Sultan said 400,000 health workers had been registered to get the vaccine.
A poll of 555 medical workers conducted by Gallup Pakistan and a national physicians' association between Feb. 12 and Feb. 20 said 59% of health workers had not yet been offered a shot.
Sinopharm is one of four vaccines approved for use by Pakistan for health workers and is currently the only vaccine available in the country of 220 million.
Some 81% of health workers said they were willing to be vaccinated, but 46% said they would prefer Pfizer or AstraZeneca over the Sinopharm shot. Some 58% said a vaccine developed so quickly could not be guaranteed to be safe.
"Chinese is a brand not synonymous with medical innovation," Bilal Gilani, of Gallup Pakistan, told Reuters. "If Pfizer or AstraZeneca were offered, there would be a much higher uptake."
Pfizer is a U.S. company while AstraZeneca is Anglo-Swedish.
Gilani said doctors did not trust government recommendations and instead looked to social media for information on the vaccine.
"No doctor is refusing to get the vaccine. Some of them are waiting for the Oxford one, AstraZeneca," Salman Kazmi, General Secretary of the Young Doctor's Association Pakistan, told Reuters from Lahore.
"But there are some myths and delays, that is probably why the speed of vaccination is not high."
While a preference for Western vaccines may be a stumbling block in the case of COVID shots, polio vaccination efforts in Pakistan have had to grapple with Islamist militant attacks and conspiracy theories the shots are a Western ploy to sterilise Muslims.
(Reporting by Umar Farooq; Additional reporting by Charlotte Greenfield and Asif Shahzad in Islamabad, and Syed Raza Hassan in Karachi. Editing by Nick Macfie)