POSTSCRIPT / September 8, 2020 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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COVID could make or break presidents

AS the Philippines keeps its lead in the regional race to the top of the COVID heap, China and Russia are in another competition — to win the favor of Filipinos fending off the invisible coronavirus that has infected more than 238,000 of them and killed 3,800-plus.

President Duterte has made it known that he welcomes the kind offers of his president-friends Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia, both of whom promised him a vaccine before Christmas.

It is significant that while Duterte publicly offered himself as a guinea pig for the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, he did not voice a similar vote of confidence in the other product that is Made-in-China.

Duterte’s words were still reverberating around the world when his interpreter Harry Roque deadened their impact by clarifying that the President still has to wait for the conclusive results of the final tests and the vaccine’s approval by the Food and Drug Administration.

But many Filipinos reared in ayuda politics and bahala na fatalism — and some of them possibly out of desperation — may just start thinking they have nothing to lose anyway except their miserable lives and accept a free vaccination whether from China or Russia.

If only we had the luxury of time — which in Duterte’s favorite Ecclesiastes is either a time to rush into inoculation or to wait for a sure shot — more Filipinos could study more carefully their options of either playing Russian roulette or Chinese checkers.

But with our long exposure to poor-quality Chinese products and with our conditioned bias for Western (erroneously meaning non-Oriental) medicines, we dare say that more Filipinos are likely to be less trusting of a Chinese vaccine and more tolerant of one made in Russia.

A Palace team, btw, was to meet last week with Pfizer reps to discuss “arrangements” for securing vaccines being developed by the New York-based pharmaceutical giant, and with Russian reps and the makers of Sputnik V vaccines.

In the US, where COVID has scored the biggest number of deaths at more than 193,000, Americans will line up at election centers or mail their ballots for the Nov. 3 election with the White House’s handling of the pandemic and the postal service possibly affecting the vote.

Most experts doubt that a safe and effective vaccine could be rushed before the election, although President Trump who looks like he is running scared, is bent on gifting the population with a vaccine before they vote.

Candidate vaccines pass several clinical stages, capped by a Phase-4 testing on at least 30,000 humans to be given several doses at an interval of no less than a month. With that, experts ask how a vaccine could hit the mass market by November, whether in Washington or in Manila.

But Xi and Putin seem to have already convinced the Davao mayor that they could deliver their respective vaccine before yearend – with the public left wondering if it would just prevent infection, or mitigate symptoms, or cure the COVID patient outright.

Putting his own daughter’s life on the line, Putin had her join those who were inoculated as part of the Russian early trials on humans. That was a most dramatic testimonial, something missing in Xi’s sales talk.

Additionally, Kirill Dmitriev, head of Russia’s $50-billion Sovereign Wealth Fund that bankrolled the vaccine’s development, put his (group’s) money and his life where his mouth is and announced: “I am confident enough in Russia’s Gamaleya vaccine that I received an injection of it… and developed a strong immunity in 20 days.”

The medical community in the West is generally not easily impressed. Skeptics point out that Moscow’s Gamaleya Research Institute has not been transparent about its testing process and has not even completed Phase-3 trials.

The Lancet, a weekly peer-reviewed general medical journal and one of the world’s oldest, reported Friday that early results from trials of Russia’s vaccine showed no major negative side effects on the 76 participants that included 38 healthy adults.

It added: “Large, long-term trials including a placebo comparison, and further monitoring are needed to establish the long-term safety and effectiveness of the vaccine for preventing COVID-19 infection.”

The vaccine was the first in the world to be registered after its approval in August by Russia’s health regulators. Putin said at the time that full-scale production would start in September, potentially pulling what looks like a global scoop.

Dmitriev told CNBC that the Lancet report had generated much interest: “It is very important to share information with the world… the results have been very good but basically the study showed there is very strong both antibodies and cell immune response.”

He said Russia was on track to export the vaccine by November, and aimed to release data from the Phase-3 human trials at the end of October. (We assume that must be the same encouraging news that Putin also told Duterte.–fdp)

Dmitriev said: “Right now we have 40,000 clinical trials going on in Russia, we started it at the end of August, and there will also be clinical trials in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Philippines, and many other markets. So basically we’re on track to have registration not only available in Russia… but also available to key other countries already around November.”

Reporting that Russia became on Aug. 11 the first country to approve a vaccine against severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the Lancet described the vaccine as based on two adenovirus vectors, as developed by the Gamaleya National Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology.

Lancet reported that at the time of approval, the vaccine had not even started Phase-3 trials, nor had any results on the earlier stage trials been published. But since then, it said, the Phase-1/2 results have been published. The vaccine induced a strong immune response in all 76 participants, it added.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of September 8, 2020)

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