POSTSCRIPT / October 18, 2020 / Sunday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Is it herd mentality or herd immunity?

IS THE response of the Philippines to the COVID-19 pandemic that has infected 351,700-plus Filipinos and killed more than 6,500 of them guided by herd mentality, or herd immunity, or something else we have not heard before?

Is the public health crisis being approached according to a carefully laid-out plan or merely being managed using accepted prevention and remedial measures supplemented by a “stop them as they come” military-style operation?

Herd immunity sets in when a large enough portion of the infected community becomes immune after exposure to the disease, thereby slowing down or stopping its spread. The whole community, not just those who are immune, is thus protected.

One worrisome drawback is that a big percentage of the population – a threshold proportion – must catch the disease and survive for the herd to be protected. If the proportion that gains immunity is greater than the threshold, the spread of the disease declines.

What percentage of the community must get infected and become immune to achieve herd immunity? It depends on the disease. COVID-19 is a novel scourge that broke out in Wuhan City in China only 11 months ago, and many of its aspects are still being studied.

Without waiting to determine the threshold for herd immunity, a wise immediate step is to inoculate as many people as possible. One problem is that although the coronavirus is a mutation of an older virus, there is still no vaccine certified as a safe and effective antidote for it.

Oh yes, there is supposed to be one – the Russian Sputnik V – which Moscow certified in August and started pushing as its contribution to the world’s pandemic response after the daughter of Russian President Vladimir Putin took the shots and survived.

Developing a vaccine has become a tool of political diplomacy. In the United States, however, President Trump is so engrossed in his reelection bid aside from battling his own COVID-19 infection to think about waving to allies the promise of a US-made vaccine.

Since seeking herd immunity is a massive and expensive endeavor, what could be done instead? Aside from waiting for a vaccine, the Philippines has been testing, tracing and treating would-be patients. As of Friday, it has tested 4,305,171 persons, a middling figure.

With a quest for herd immunity being too difficult to pursue, it would be better for the Philippines to exploit herd mentality – or doing what many others are doing — especially with a population known for its tendency to go gaya-gaya (copycat).

This propensity of many Filipinos to go where the herd is headed could be (if not already) used to good advantage by communication experts hired not only to promote political objectives but also to help manage the COVID crisis along desired lines.

The Department of Science and Technology said Friday the Chinese pharmaceutical firm Sinopharm has dropped its plan to conduct in the Philippines a late-stage clinical trial of its coronavirus vaccine candidate.

Among those left on the DOST list of firms that could conduct vaccine clinical field trials are the Chinese firm Sinovac Biotech, the Russian Gamaleya Research Institute, and the American company Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen.

We suddenly recall, btw, President Duterte saying half-seriously in one of his late TV night reports that many Filipinos are impervious to infection because of the natural immunity acquired over their lifetime exposure to assorted contamination.

Don’t laugh but I might agree with him on that point, having often walked barefoot in my boyhood and getting injured and infected by over-exposure to mikrobio (I never heard the term virus) in those days.

Duterte said the government plans to spend P20 billion to buy an initial 40 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine (two doses per person) for the first 20 million beneficiaries who will include the “poorest of the poor”, “my” soldiers and policemen, and public health front liners.

He promised to distribute the vaccine for free once available, except to “enemies of the state” such as drug lords and drug pushers, and the rich.

In a televised Cabinet meeting, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III said the Philippine International Trading Corp. will handle the procurement, while the state-owned Development Bank of the Philippines and Land Bank of the Philippines will bankroll the purchase.

Duterte said some foreign firms expecting to complete clinical trials soon have assured him the Philippines will be given priority access to the vaccine before Christmas. We understand, however, that Filipinos would have to participate in their clinical tests.

He also volunteered to take the first shot of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine offered by Putin. News of his offering himself as a guinea pig was still circling the globe when his interpreter Harry Roque clarified that that would be only after the vaccine is proved to be safe and effective and approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

In the world tally of COVID-19 cases last Friday, the Philippines dropped from #18 to #20 in ranking. With its 351,750 cases, it was overtaken by Germany (#19 with 348,816 cases) and Indonesia (#18 with 349,160 cases).

With the urgent need to stimulate the faltering economy, the government is lifting its ban on foreign travel, limitations on people going from one quarantine area to another, and restrictions on senior citizens going out of their houses. Rules on public transportation will be relaxed.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of October 18, 2020)

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