POSTSCRIPT / August 6, 2020 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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What if vaccine isn’t here by December?

WHAT if President Duterte’s friend in Beijing fails to deliver before Christmas the anti-COVID vaccine envisioned as the main weapon of the government in fighting the coronavirus pandemic that has been surging with alarming severity lately?

In this imperfect world, such a delay could happen. Hope not — not after Duterte has placed all his eggs in Xi’s basket of unfulfilled promises.

Another question: When healthcare front liners and government administrators emerge from their Aug. 4-18 “timeout” would they have re-strategized the ineffectual anti-COVID drive?

The front liners called for a timeout because they were bone-weary and saw the need for reforming the campaign before it is overwhelmed by the pandemic. President Duterte saw their plight and vowed better working conditions.

A concerned nation is watching if the promised reforms, which include salary upgrades and improvements in the workplace, will be adopted or initiated during the month.

Duterte has been so fixated on the vaccine as the silver bullet that will make up for his lack of a comprehensive plan. He is so excited about it that he does policy contortions to ensure that Xi is happy to rush the vaccine, which he wants to give to 20 million Filipinos mired in poverty.

We hope he sees the vaccine as just a prophylactic, a prevention against contracting COVID-19. We still need a cure for those who have caught the disease already. Their number has surged beyond the 115,000 mark since quarantine was relaxed last week to stimulate the faltering economy.

On promises, Duterte may want to recall his first visit to Beijing in 2016. After attacking the United States to the delight of his hosts, he came home carrying Xi’s promises of investments ($15 billion) and soft loans ($9 billion). Most of them are still hollow promises.

At the SONA the other Monday, he again buttered up Xi, welcoming his promise of a vaccine and announcing out of nowhere that he would not allow the US to set up a naval base in Subic Bay. He got another merit star, but will that clinch delivery of the vaccine by December?

During a meeting with some Cabinet members last Monday, before somebody whispered Revolution! to him, Duterte was all too eager to grant the front liners the concessions they had mentioned in their statement that the anti-COVID drive needed re-strategizing.

The first step that the front liners wanted was his reverting Metro Manila plus Cavite, Rizal, Laguna and Bulacan to Modified Enhanced Community Quarantine status that restricts movement of people in that area where infection has been unusually high.

The idea is to ground people suspected to be the main carriers of the deadly coronavirus. The move is double-edged, however, as it also scales down economic activity in an area that accounts for 67 percent of the gross domestic product.

With the lockdown pressing on the economic brakes and with public funds running low, will the nation be able to nourish itself back to health and normalcy mainly by waiting for the vaccine instead of aggressively taking steps to prevent people from dying by slow starvation?

After spending billions (nobody seems to know exactly where) supposedly to feed and house Filipinos stripped of their jobs or livelihood, aside from their dignity, won’t the thinning financial string of the administration – and the people’s patience — snap?

Some economists estimate MECQ losses to run to P12 billion a day. The President’s spokesman warned that the economy cannot afford the timeout extending beyond Aug. 18 with Mega Manila, the economic dynamo of the nation, downshifted.

In China, three vaccine development projects are already in the stage of tests on humans. But the educated guess in most pharma centers is that the vaccine can be in the mass market only next year, not before December as Duterte has been led to believe.

Science and Technology Secretary Fortunato de la Peña himself said a vaccine may not be available until the middle of 2021. “If we are talking about the World Health Organization solidarity trials and our bilateral agreements, it could take up to the middle of 2021,” he said.

Negotiations are reportedly ongoing with five institutions — three with China, two with Taiwan — which he described as “very ahead in terms of clinical trials.”

China is not part of Covax, a WHO-backed mechanism that aims to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines to participating countries, including those that cannot afford them. The Philippines is a member.

Beijing has been offering the vaccine to developing countries such as Nepal, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Philippines. Last month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi offered $1 billion in loans for Latin American and Caribbean countries to buy COVID vaccines.

In June, Xi promised African countries priority access to China’s vaccine once it is ready for the market. It is the same assurance he has been whispering to Duterte.

The vaccine has emerged as another political tool, especially in light of the slowing down of China’s Belt and Road Initiative that seeks to link up strategic areas in the world through easy development loans that their critics say lead to debt traps.

Its Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said more than a dozen companies are building facilities in China for vaccine production. Two of them are by Sinopharm subsidiaries. There is one in Wuhan that can produce 100 million doses annually, and another in Beijing with a capacity of 120 million. Sinovac, which is in phase three trials in Brazil, is building a plant able to produce 100 million doses.

Anticipating big demand abroad that could be exploited, China has been reviving drug production facilities on the mainland and entering into joint ventures with a few others abroad. Examples are between Sinovac and producers in Brazil and Indonesia.

One problem of China is a widespread distrust of the safety and efficacy of its products, including medicines. Informal surveys in the Philippines have shown that given a choice, most Filipinos would hesitate to take drugs made in China.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of August 6, 2020)

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Dear Sir Pascual, I am apprehensive regarding the vaccine. I am more concerned re its safety than efficacy. I would rather have a low death count than a high cure rate. A safe vaccine is one that has been thoroughly tested not only against standalone toxicity but in all the possible ADVERSE interactions with all available pharmaceuticals in the market (I mean all, not just possible, permutations and combinations) — unless you subscribe to the depopulation agenda (i.e., in Bill Gates' words in TED talks "If we really do a good job in healthcare and vaccines, we can lower the global population by 10 to 15 percent..."; I paraphrase a bit). And why insist and rely only on China's vaccine when it is globally notorious for containing or contaminated with heavy metals (like lead) and other foreign toxic substances.


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