COVID vaccines are not created equal
WHICH of several COVID-19 vaccines in the market is the government thinking of using to inoculate at least 60 million Filipinos scattered throughout the archipelago and how will the complicated operation be conducted?
We start with the basic question of which vaccine or vaccines to use because other steps moving forward will depend largely on which vaccine(s) will flow through the complex logistical chain that will link population centers.
To begin with, not all vaccines are created equal. They vary not only in their efficacy, safety and price but also in their storage and distribution requirements. For instance, not all of them can be kept in the regular freezers of pharmacies or trucked around like frozen meat.
Maintaining multiple distribution systems to accommodate the assortment of vaccines would be a logistical nightmare.
The new messenger-RNA (mRNA) vaccines no longer use attenuated viruses but edited genetic strands of the virus that, unintended, turn out to be so delicate that they easily snap outside a frigid ambiance.
A country like the Philippines which is so financially handicapped that it will go into debt just to buy vaccines cannot afford to put up a variety of storage/delivery systems for as many as there are various vaccine brands in its inventory.
Note that while the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine requires minus 70 degrees Celsius, colder than Antarctica winter, the British pharma firm’s AstraZeneca and Russia’s Sputnik V reportedly remain stable in the freezer of a regular refrigerator. They do not share the same cold storage.
The logistical costs would be reduced considerably if the government settles for just one vaccine brand, or maybe two or three brands whose requirements, say, for sub-zero storage fall within a common tolerable range.
Obviously, before designing or deciding what system of storage and distribution to prepare, we should know exactly which of the vaccine candidates will be deployed in the mass vaccination and what the overall plan is. Actually, it is quite late if we are thinking of this only now.
Papers were signed Nov. 27 for the purchase from AstraZeneca of an initial 2.6 million doses by several private firms, half of the drugs reserved for their personnel and the rest donated to the government. Delivery is expected mid-2021 even as an order for a second batch was placed.
Before the AstraZeneca purchase was allowed, did the vaccine go through the required scientific tests and then approved by the Food and Drug Administration as to its safety and efficacy?
On Dec. 8, the United Kingdom launched the world’s first COVID-19 mass inoculation, using the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Is there an application in the Philippines for FDA approval of the same vaccine? Is it being considered for use in the country?
The vaccine has just been approved for use in the United States and stocks started rolling out Monday as the US rushed to stop the coronavirus that has infected more than 16,630,000 Americans and killed at least 305,700.
Also being mentioned in the news are other vaccines such as China’s Sinovac and Russia’s Sputnik V, which reportedly would be locally available in the second quarter next year. Other brands include Moderna, Sanofi, and GlaxoSmithKline.
Apparently in financial straits, as it is forced to go into heavy borrowing (national government debt reached US$193.2 billion in September) to meet obligations, the Philippines appears to be merely window shopping and not sealing vaccine purchases with a down payment.
The first and only purchase of 2.6 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccines was paid by a group of private companies, and not by the government. But the finance department is talking about intending to secure more loans to be able to place its own orders.
To inoculate 60 million people, the vaccine alone will cost P144 billion. Multiply that by two since handling reportedly will entail a similar sum. President Duterte may have to hock more patrimonial assets or sell whatever is left of the strategic and/or resources-rich sections of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
But we will keep going back to the basic question: Which vaccine or vaccines will be brought in for the government-sponsored mass inoculation that will take how long?
The urgency of the COVID-19 mass vaccination has become a political lever held by some countries that are able to produce the vaccine in quantities beyond their own requirements.
It is interesting that when vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr. announced days ago that China is likely to beat other suppliers in delivering vaccines in quantity, there was negative reaction in social media, which has become of late the sounding board of public opinion.
What if a significant number of Filipinos reject the Chinese vaccine? The usual polling firms may try salvaging the embarrassing situation by producing public pulse reports that a supermajority of Filipinos are happy to be injected with Made-in-China vaccine.
A better response to the public skepticism is to have a grinning President Duterte, his Cabinet, ex-generals and his favorite senator, injected with China-made vaccine on live TV.
On another point, Malacañang must clarify if its priority vaccination list of 22.8 million that includes 525,000 members of the armed forces, the police, etc., covers all uniformed personnel or only those who, while on duty, come in contact with COVID patients or suspected carriers.
And then, what is the vaccination period? Galvez once said the inoculation will take three to five years. That means it will stretch beyond Duterte’s term which ends in 2022. How many more Filipinos will die while waiting that long to be vaccinated?
If the objective is to develop herd immunity, can that alleged goal be achieved in three or five years if the inoculation is carried out in the now normal turtle-pace of government service?