POSTSCRIPT / November 22, 2020 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Vaccine Yuletide gift to be delayed till Lent

THE RESURGENCE of Covid-19 cases in many countries has dampened somewhat the week’s good news that several coronavirus vaccine developers have achieved higher than 90-percent efficacy in their final Phase-3 trials on humans.

Another challenge is the big gap between the leading vaccines’ being cleared by regulatory agencies and their being delivered through a complex logistic chain requiring sub-zero storage for speedy distribution to the waiting millions.

In Malacañang, the positive news on the vaccines was muffled Tuesday by President Duterte’s warning Vice President Leni Robredo not to compete with him for the attention of calamity victims and not to fan the question “Nasaan ang Pangulo?” into going viral on social media.

For the record, it was not Robredo who posted the hashtag “Nasaan ang Pangulo?” (Where’s the President?) and sparked a viral bushfire of disaffection. It just caught on, probably an indication of people’s getting fed up with absentee governance.

That 18-minute steaming-off over, we waited for the President or any of his task force generals to report on the status of the government’s shopping for anti-Covid vaccines. No clear report on a vaccination program or timetable was announced.

We’re back to the likelihood, based on the paucity of solid info, that Duterte may not be able to keep his promise that an anti-Covid vaccine will be available locally by December.

Considering the many hurdles ahead, it seems that the government’s Christmas gift of a vaccine for the people would be delivered next year pa, looking more like a Semana Santa penitential offering.

So the instant message is: Stay alive, be safe, wear that mask, wash your hands, keep your official distance, don’t compete, till Lent next year.

Some rich families were reported the next day chipping in for the purchase of up to two million doses through Advance Market Commitments, a financing mechanism that assures funders a share of the vaccine supply once available.

Gen. Carlito Galvez Jr., head of the task force tackling Covid-19, was quoted saying in a briefing: “Nagpapasalamat po tayo kay Enrique Razon na mayroon po rin siyang binigay na 300,000 doses. Ang BDO at saka po ‘yung ibang mga Lucio Tan Group at saka San Miguel Corp., saka Go Negosyo, nakapag-raise na po sila ng more than one million. And hopefully, baka tataas pa ‘yon ng one or two million doses.”

In a related gesture, Ramon S. Ang, SMC president/CEO, turned over the other day a personal donation of P2 million to Operation Damayan, to support The STAR’s fund-raising for typhoon-hit areas in Luzon. San Miguel Corp. also committed to donate 120 boxes of canned goods for evacuees in Cagayan.

Does the government have the money for mass vaccination? President Duterte has said “may pera ako”, his way of saying that the government has funds to buy, transport, store and distribute the vaccine when it becomes available.

He has also ordered that inoculation priority be given to public health front liners, his soldiers and policemen (and their family members), then the “poorest of the poor”.

The proposed 2021 national budget allots only P2.5 billion for Covid-19 vaccine procurement. Compare that to the health department’s needing around P12.9 billion to inoculate for free at least 20 percent of the 100-million-plus population.

Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez is borrowing P20 billion from the Land Bank of the Philippines and the Development Bank of the Philippines, but that may not be enough if the government decides to vaccinate 50 million Filipinos to achieve herd immunity.

Malacañang’s choice of source of the vaccine is being awaited. The early preferences of Duterte – China and Russia– have reportedly experienced problems in their Phase-3 trials. Also pending is the plan on how to bring in the vaccine, then store and distribute it nationwide.

Senate discussions have it that the cheapest vaccine, reportedly that of multinational AztraZeneca, will cost P610 per person. The most expensive vaccine is reportedly that of Sinopharm of China, at about P17,690 per person for two doses.

Answering Sen. Ralph Recto’s question on the total cost of vaccinating 24 million Filipinos, Sen. Pia Cayetano, health committee vice chair, said around P22 billion is needed, covering vaccine cost, supply chain expense, PPEs of health workers, and post-vaccination surveillance.

As the coronavirus pandemic infected 57,831,336 worldwide, killing 1,375,861, as of late Friday, vaccine developers in the US held out the probability of their drug being rolled out late December or early next year.

New York-based Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech said results of their latest Phase-3 trials showed it was 95-percent effective. They added that it appeared safe and protective of older people most at risk of dying from Covid-19.

(Sidebar: Hours after the announcement sent their share prices soaring, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla sold 132,500 shares of company stock for $41.94 each. [He had authorized the sale in August if the price reached that level.] Executive VP Sally Susman sold 43,660 shares also at that price under a similar sell order made last year.)

The price of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is reportedly around $20 per dose, with a booster shot to be taken 28 days after the first. Its complicated handling, however, requiring storage at minus 75 degrees Celsius, may rule out its being used in the Philippines.

The biotechnology firm Moderna based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, announced Monday that early clinical trial results showed its vaccine candidate was 94.5-percent effective.

The Gamaleya National Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology and the Russian Direct Investment Fund bankrolling the Sputnik-V vaccine development said that an interim analysis of 20 Covid-19 cases among trial participants has found that the vaccine was 92-percent effective.

Advance orders have been placed by the United States and the European Union with their preferred sources. Other countries, still negotiating, are asking the World Health Organization and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help them get discounts.

Malacañang has not indicated which vaccines it would buy. The early favorites of Duterte – the Chinese and the Russian vaccines – reportedly have been delayed in their Phase III trials on humans.

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

* * *

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