POSTSCRIPT / January 17, 2021 / Sunday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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The worst sales rep for Chinese vaccines

IT HAS been noticed that the more President Duterte shows a preference for Chinese COVID-19 vaccines, the stiffer public resistance becomes to being inoculated with those drugs. It’s an interesting marketing point to explore.

The association between Duterte and China’s Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines seems to arise from an impression that in choosing which vaccine should lead in the government’s mass vaccination, he is guided not by medical science but largely by political considerations.

It looks like the President would be an unsuitable sales rep for Chinese vaccines if he were to work as one.

But it could turn out that Chinese vaccines, developed along the long-established method of using dead or weakened viruses to boost the human body’s immune system, may prove to be more stable over time than the new memory-RNA (mRNA) vaccines using modified genetic strands of the virus.

Note that even now, there have been reports of the coronavirus, reacting to the new mRNA-type vaccines, mutating and producing variants that spread faster than the original virus. Could this be an indication that the more traditional Chinese vaccines are more stable?

With the Covid-19 pandemic raging, meantime, competing vaccines produced through various methods are deployed on the run with politics, bias and public perception among the factors influencing their acceptance in the market.

The Senate inquiry on Friday on the vaccination program, touching on trust and bias, elicited an assurance from Vaccine Czar Carlito Galvez Jr. that the government is not yet committed to buying Chinese vaccines, despite the widespread impression that Sinovac with Duterte’s backing is leading the field.

Opening the probe, Senate President Tito Sotto reminded government officials having to do with the program that “Haste makes waste,” and that surveys show that some 47 percent of Filipinos are hesitant to have themselves vaccinated.

Answering questions of senators, Galvez said among other things that the government can still back out from its tentative Sinovac deal if necessary. The Chinese firm still has to submit clinical trial data required of it by the Food and Drug Administration.

Galvez said that only the US firm Pfizer has been issued an emergency use authorization (EUA) with an initial delivery of 50,000 doses expected next month. Its vaccines will eventually total 44 million doses, to be given free under the COVAX program of the World Health Organization.

The government is talking to seven potential suppliers: AstraZeneca (17 million doses), Sinovac (25 million), Novavax (30-40 million), Pfizer (44 million), Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and Gamaleya.

Sen. Cynthia Villar asked why purchases made by private groups, half of which is donated to the government, could not be distributed by the firms that had fully paid for the whole lot to all their personnel after the government share is given to it.

Galvez explained that under the tripartite agreement covering the purchase, the distribution should always follow the priorities established by the government. (But private firms are not organized like the government, leaving Villar visibly unsatisfied with the explanation.)

But with the overall supply situation still fluid, and with the complex logistical network still not in place, the signing of commitment or purchase contracts and actual delivery may still spring surprises, including Chinese vaccines again taking the lead.

President Duterte has retracted his pledge to take the first shot of the vaccine promised to be delivered by China last December yet. He is now saying that he will have his injection after all those on the priority lists have been inoculated.

His backtracking may rekindle doubts on the efficacy and safety of the Chinese vaccines. If indeed he believes in the reliability of the drugs offered by Beijing he should go back to his original promise to take the first shot of the Chinese vaccines when they arrive.

But this could be problematic if speculations have basis that he may have had his first dose already when his security men had themselves inoculated (illegally) with smuggled Chinese vaccine more than a month ago.

Other critical items that were not cleared up in the Senate inquiry included the candidate vaccines’ efficacy ratings, their prices, and the laying out of the nationwide storage and distribution chain.

Since Pfizer and Moderna strictly require storage in ultra-cold freezers, they are likely to be kept in areas with such facilities like Metro Manila, Metro Cebu and Metro Davao. Pfizer needs minus-70-degree-Celsius storage.

To stop the guessing game fueled by conflicting reports, Galvez or the FDA may want to correct these reported efficacy ratings: Pfizer-BioNTech, 95 percent; Moderna, 94 percent; Sinovac, 50-78 percent; Gamaleya, 91.4 percent; and AstraZeneca, 62-90 percent.

President Duterte tried Wednesday explaining away any discrepancy by saying that all vaccines have the same potency because scientists who made them “all studied the same microbes.” He was of course, huh, wrong as even a quick consultation with Dr. Google would show.

As for prices, these were given out late last year by the health department and never updated but they are still good reference:

Novavax, P366 per 2 doses; AstraZeneca, P610; Covax facility, P854; Sputnik V, P1,220; Pfizer, P2,379; Moderna, P3,904-P4,504; and Sinocac, P3,629.50. The prices include value-added tax and contingency for 10-percent “inflation”.

Galvez was asked why Sinovac carried a price tag of more than P3,600 per two doses while Indonesia reportedly paid only the equivalent of P700. He said there are many factors but could not discuss them without violating the confidentiality clause in the contract. Ganoon?

(First published in the Philippine STAR of January 17, 2021)

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