POSTSCRIPT / December 22, 2020 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Pfizer to play 2nd fiddle to Sinovac?

AMBASSADOR Babe Romualdez gave last Sunday what to me was the best print media report of Philippine efforts to tap the good offices of the United States in helping it secure a fair share in the COVID-19 vaccine supply of Pfizer-BioNTech and other developers.

The envoy shared insider details – without distracting braggadocio — of how he and Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr. sought the help of US State Secretary Mike Pompeo in securing Pfizer vaccines. You can read his report again at https://tinyurl.com/y7fzhc2h.

While he is already preparing to step down with the Trump team in one month, the outgoing Pompeo, we hope, will be of real help to the Philippine government during the transition to the Biden administration.

Romualdez said he may be partly to blame for the “dropping of the ball” by an unnamed official who failed to work out the early signing of the Confidentiality Disclosure Agreement that should accompany the purchase order for 10 million doses of Pfizer vaccine.

He said, however, that while the Philippines may have missed a January delivery, Pompeo assured Locsin in a followup phone call that he would help work out delivery in the summer or spring of next year. He will do that while clearing his desk?

As other countries with faster reflexes have cornered the bulk of the Pfizer stock in the early rush, the Philippines is also looking at other brands such as those of Moderna and Arcturus that are said to be of comparable safety and efficacy and of competitive price.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque, the person of interest in the “dropping the ball” issue, has explained that he was not aware of the urgency of securing the CDA approval for a January delivery by Pfizer. Are we now being treated to a “passing the ball/buck” sort of game?

Duque said he may have “erred on the side of caution” as he wanted to know more about Pfizer’s vaccine unaware that the absence of a CDA kept it from disclosing data. The CDA was originally intended to be signed by the Office of the President and not his department.

The usual skeptics are wondering, however, if that CDA delay was not part of a plan to slow down or eliminate the American firm from contention and open the door wider for Sinovac Biotech of China to become the lead vaccine supplier of the Philippines.

On pricing, Sinovac (at P3,629.50 for two doses) is six times more expensive than AstraZeneca (P620 for two doses ) which has committed to deliver in January an initial 2.6 million doses ordered by private firms helping finance government vaccine purchases.

Pfizer (at P2,379 for two doses) is cheaper than Sinovac although more expensive than AstraZeneca, but it may have lost traction when its January delivery was pushed back after Duque sat on its CDA papers.

If Pfizer’s high price does not eliminate it from the game, its requiring cold storage at minus 70 degrees Celsius, which is colder than Antarctica winter, might just do it.

Investing in such a cold storage system linking vaccination centers in the archipelago might be too costly for a country that must borrow heavily to give its people a safe, effective and affordable vaccine. Experts say its handling may cost as much as the vaccine itself.

The new messenger-RNA (mRNA) vaccines have modified genetic strands that easily break in temperature fluctuations, so maintaining the required temperature range is critical. Stocking up and distributing multiple vaccines with widely different storage needs could be a logistical nightmare.

Fortunately, we now see emerging the outline of a National Vaccine Roadmap, which we had thought was non-existent or was categorized as a top military secret that the government had to hide it from the people.

In a statement on Saturday, vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr. gave an assurance that despite its inability to keep up with other countries with more money (and more wide-awake leaders, we want to add) snapping up large quantities of COVID-19 vaccines, the Philippines is on track.

Galvez said the country did not miss out on securing vaccines. “No bus was missed or no ball was dropped because we are focused on our main goal of securing an equitable share of the vaccines,” he said.

He expressed optimism that a deal would be sealed with Pfizer this month or the first week of January next year.

He said vaccine selection is based on safety, efficacy, cost-effectiveness, the track record of the vaccine maker, complexity of handling and logistics, after-sales and life cycle services, production capacity and early delivery, and long-term commitment.

“The Philippine National Vaccine Roadmap also created a Task Group for Adverse Effect to monitor that these vaccines are safe,” he reported. “This is to ensure that everything that we do will redound to public health safety and the lasting benefit of the Filipino people.”

Romualdez also said Pfizer’s vaccines will be available around June next year, “but our friends in Washington have assured us that there are three or four more vaccine candidates that are going to be approved soon.”

Among them is the vaccine being developed by biotechnology firm Moderna, which has received the go-signal from a panel of experts from the US Food and Drug Administration to obtain an emergency use authorization (EUA), with the rollout expected in a few days.

Romualdez expressed hope that the Inter-Agency Task Force on the coronavirus crisis will include vaccines from Moderna and Arcturus Therapeutics in the country’s pool of COVID-19 vaccines. He said the two firms could supply from four to 25 million doses.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of December 22, 2020)

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