POSTSCRIPT / February 21, 2021 / Sunday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Christmas gift vax now a Lent offering

IN November last year, seeing President Duterte and his generals unable to present a clear vaccination battle plan, we said that his promised Christmas gift of COVID-19 vaccines was likely to be delayed and end up being a “Semana Santa penitential offering”.

Our fearful forecast is unfolding before us. Failing to deliver the vaccines last December, they moved the rollout date to February, we thought in time for Valentine’s Day. But Holy Week is already upon us, yet there is not a drop of the promised coronavirus vaccine.

Either (1) Duterte and his generals are simply not up to the job, or (2) they have been moving too late and too slowly, or (3) some players have been dropping the ball to condition a desperate public to settle for vaccines made in China.

The vaccines must arrive before March 28, when Duterte turns 76. But beware the Ides of March (March 15), which the ancient Romans considered as a deadline for settling debts. It was also the date when brutish senators slew an imperious Julius Caesar.

Seeing Duterte taking his sweet time while the pandemic raged last year, we got the impression he was lulled into complacency by the assurance of his friends from Beijing and the Kremlin that they would come in with loads of vaccines by December.

It seemed nobody explained to him that he was being offered vaccines for Phases 2-3 clinical trials to test their efficacy and safety. The vaccines were not for mass inoculation but for testing on two-legged guinea pigs such as presidential guards.

With the law of supply and demand having kicked in, some rich countries that had ordered enough doses to vaccinate their population several times over tightened their hold on the drug when the global supply turned critical with the upswing in infections.

Delivery commitments suddenly became contingent on many details, including the need for the government to free suppliers of liabilities if anything untoward occurs similar to the 2018 dengvaxia scare that saw adverse reactions, including deaths, among dengue vaccinees.

 The situation in the rest of ASEAN

HERE are notes from the ASEAN Briefing of Dezan Shira & Associates for a glimpse of the situation in the nine other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations:

* BRUNEI has joined the global Covax scheme and is expecting to have the COVID-19 vaccine in Q1 2021, having sourced enough supplies to cover 50 percent of its population. Discussions are on-going with other suppliers. It recorded one new case on Feb. 17, taking the total to 185.

CAMBODIA plans to import vaccines from China and Russia. The Chinese vaccines are still undergoing clinical trials while Russia has begun production. Australia has offered financial support to several southeast Asia countries including Cambodia. It reported one new case on Feb. 19, taking the total to 484.

INDONESIA has begun vaccinations with just over nine million doses being given to frontline workers. China’s Sinovac is talking with Indonesia to provide supplies. The government faces difficulties with a population of 268 million and price sensitivity at Sinovac’s estimated costs at 200,000 rupiah (US$20) a dose. Australia said it would provide financial support.

Vaccinations would be provided only to citizens aged 18-59. The vaccine must pass halal certification. Indonesia reported 10,614 new cases and 183 deaths on Feb. 19, bringing the totals to 1,263,299 cases and 34,152 deaths.

LAOS has been testing the Russian Sputnik V vaccine and is also talking with China about acquiring supplies. The country saw one new case on Feb. 3, taking the total to 45.

MALAYSIA will provide vaccines free to its nationals, but foreigners will have to pay. Malaysian Minister of Health Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin has signed a deal with Pfizer for 12.8 million doses to be administered in two stages beginning in Q1 2021. Between 80 and 100 percent of the citizens will be inoculated. Malaysia saw 2,936 new cases and 13 deaths on Feb. 19, bringing the totals to 277,811 cases and 1,043 deaths.

MYANMAR is seeking assistance from the Gavi and Covax programs to secure vaccines, while Australia is also providing financial relief. The government aims to inoculate 20 percent of the “most at risk”. It is struggling with finances and logistics while under US sanctions. Myanmar saw 19 cases and three deaths on Feb. 19, bringing the total to 141,728 cases and 3,194 deaths.

SINGAPORE will produce its own “Lunar” vaccine, in a joint venture between the US company Arcturus together with the Duke-NUS medical school. It is a single dose, mRNA shot, developed from genetically engineered COVID-19 genes into an otherwise harmless virus. The technique is marginally safer than relying on dead COVID-19 material to trigger an immune response. The vaccine is expected to be available from Q1 2021. High-risk personnel will receive the vaccine first. Singapore reported 14 new cases on Feb. 19, bringing the tallies to 59,846 amid 29 deaths.

THAILAND expects vaccines to be delivered in mid-2021 for 13 million people in a population of about 69 million. Thailand’s National Vaccine Institute signed a non-refundable advance contract worth 2.38 billion baht (US$79 million) with AstraZeneca to reserve the supplies. Discussions are ongoing with Oxford University in the UK for a vaccine that could be available in Q1. Thailand saw 130 new cases and one death on Feb. 19, bringing the total to 25,241 amid 82 deaths.

VIETNAM’s National Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology, a division of the Ministry of Health, has signed an agreement with Medigen Vaccine, a Taipei-based firm, to secure the supply of 3-10 million doses in 2021. Medigen is conducting Phase 2 studies of the vaccine co-developed with the USA’s National Institutes of Health, in Taiwan and Vietnam with a view to a Q1 2021 rollout.

Vietnam is also working on producing its own vaccine, with the Institute of Vaccines and Medical Biologicals (IVAC) in Nha Trang City partnering with New York City-based Icahn School of Medicine and the global health non-profit organization PATH. Phase 1 trials are underway in Vietnam, while Phases 2 & 3 will be conducted early 2021. As of Feb. 19, 2021, the Ministry of Health confirmed a total of 2,347 COVID-19 cases.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of February 21, 2021)

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