POSTSCRIPT / April 24, 2003 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Stores selling face masks that are useless vs SARS?

DECORATIVE MASKS: How effective in screening the SARS virus are the face masks being sold in drug stores for P12.50 like they are the ultimate defense against the pneumonia-like scourge spreading worldwide?

The mask is made of three-ply non-woven material. It has plastic loops to hold it in place, but the fit on the face is not snug. Drugstore clerks themselves cannot say if the mask can screen out the SARS virus that is one-micron in size (one-millionth of a meter).

With the public snapping up what might turn out to be useless masks, health authorities should immediately clarify if the masks are an effective screen against airborne SARS viruses.

Selling decorative masks or passing off inferior face coverings as the surgical masks meant for anti-SARS protection is to play a cruel joke on an unsuspecting public.

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RUSH GOV’T PURCHASE: There used to be N95 surgical masks rated to screen out particles of at least 0.5 micron in size, but these have been sold out. We welcome information on these and other masks (such as the N100 type for 0.1 micron) that are fine enough to block the SARS virus.

To widen the availability of the correct masks, the government itself should lose no time in ordering them locally or importing them if there are none in the country. The items then can be sold at cost.

This priority purchase can be charged to the SARS fund approved days ago by President Arroyo. Congressmen and senators can also procure and distribute them at a subsidized price, charged to their pork barrel.

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CLEAN MALLS & BUSES: There should be supervised disinfecting of mass public conveyances (taxis, buses, jeepneys, LRT, MRT) immediately. Managers of government buildings and private malls must do their part in the cleanup.

Drivers of air-conditioned vehicles who have cough, runny nose or fever must be grounded. Better still, all drivers must be required to wear all the time a mask that is certified as effective. No passenger vehicle must go out without prior disinfection.

We can produce a long list of immediate preventive steps that the government should take. But considering the slow-mo pace in government, civic groups can take the initiative.

This is also a golden moment for the Philippine Medical Association to launch an anti-SARS program.

Prevention is our best defense. Pag nandiyan na at kalat na, lalo na tayong matataranta!

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ERRATUM: Our face is still red, after we “killed” 1,500 people who had contracted SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in our Tuesday column.

We said erroneously that SARS had killed more than 1,500 worldwide when the official figure last Tuesday was only 215 killed, with about 4,000 being treated for it.

We corrected the death toll in our ManilaMail.com website, but the printed column had gone to bed by that time and nobody along the line caught the error. We apologize for it.

We can try for some humor by saying that we actually scooped the world of journalism by several days because the death toll is likely to pass the 1,500 mark at some point. But that’s not funny at all.

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VIRUS ON THE LOOSE: We’ve been bothered by the thought that SARS might have been spawned by a secret genetic experiment that had gone awry.

With so many biotech experts tinkering with genetic materials of organisms, including humans, livestock and crops, some catastrophic slip might just produce a killer virus and accidentally set it loose upon the earth.

The ugly thought started with the evasive responses of China and its understating of SARS data after it was reported that the outbreak started in China’s southern province of Guangdong.

Chinese medical officials had no cogent reason to hide the facts. Diseases break out now and then, here and there. It was not their fault if some people in their jurisdiction had contracted a disease and died as a result, yet they were evasive.

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WILD THOUGHT: If the Chinese had been less effective in their treatment of SARS cases or lax in their quarantine management, that was still not big enough a reason for hiding or understating the facts.

There must be a bigger reason for their being secretive when the World Health Organization and the media started asking questions.

Was there a secret experiment wherein they tampered with the genetic material of, maybe, the pneumonia virus and in the process produced a mutated strain — that somehow slipped out of their hands?

It’s a wild thought, but we think that angle should be looked into.

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BIOTECH NOTES: The more we were intrigued when we read the reports in the Internet of Prof. Joe Cummins, a geneticist from University of Western Ontario, Canada.

Cummins noted that the disease agent in the SARS epidemic had been identified as a corona virus with a unique RNA sequence not directly related to known human and animal viruses.

He said: “None of the early reports have acknowledged the large body of reports on the genetic manipulation of corona viruses in the laboratory nor have they considered the possibility that the unique virus arose as a laboratory accident or purposeful experiment.”

Reviewing a number of documented studies on the genetic manipulation of corona viruses, Cummins reported:

  1. Corona virus from a disease of pigs that produces symptoms similar to SARS has been manipulated to create a viral vector to propagate foreign genes.
  2. The corona virus coat protein genes have been manipulated to alter the tropism (species attacked by the virus) of the virus.
  3. The gene for the pig corona virus coat protein (controlling viral tropism) was propagated in tobacco plants.
  4. Prodigene, a company specializing in production of crop biopharmaceuticals also produced an edible vaccine for swine corona virus. Information on whether or not that product was the one being field-tested in a disastrous test has been deemed confidential information.

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STRIKING PILOTS RAPPED: It seems that the pilots of Philippine Airlines who staged a crippling strike in 1998 cannot just walk away from those turbulent 22-days that brought the airline to the brink of total collapse.

The strike was declared illegal by the Department of Labor and Employment. The ruling was upheld by the Court of Appeals and affirmed with finality by the Supreme Court.

Following up, the airline has sued its former pilots union seeking compensation for over P1.034 billion in actual and exemplary damages.

In an action at the National Labor Relations Commission, PAL accused the Airline Pilots Association of the Philippines of acting “with bad faith, malice and deliberate intent” to wreck PAL during the dispute.

The flag carrier said that the work stoppage timed with the peak summer travel period, stranded hundreds of passengers at foreign airports and paralyzed operations. The strike also affected the centennial independence celebration on June 12, 1998.

The airline asked for over P731 million in actual damages, consisting of P71.4 million in ticket refunds, P214.1 million in endorsements to other airlines, and P426.8 million in lost income from cancelled flights. It also sought P300 million in exemplary damages.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of April 24, 2003)

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