POSTSCRIPT / January 26, 2021 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Variants to overtake vaccination rollout?

WHILE our politicians are debating the prices of COVID-19 vaccines and generals are plotting strategy against the coronavirus onslaught, more infectious variants of the original virus have popped up to complicate the slow-moving preparations.

The first variant, detected in the United Kingdom last September and coded as B.1.1.7, has appeared in the Mountain Province, Benguet, Rizal, Laguna and Metro Manila. Mutants have been reported in 45 countries, including the United States, China, Canada, India, Brazil, South Africa and Nigeria.

This development has raised basic questions, such as how deadly are the variants, if they can be stopped by the vaccines, if the plan drawn up by the task force assigned to the pandemic will have to be revised, if more loans must be secured, and how long the economic squeeze will last.

Or, as Senate President Tito Sotto has remarked, is the slow preparation for the mass vaccination a blessing in disguise giving us a chance to learn from the mistakes of other countries that had rushed their rollout? Health Secretary Francisco Duque also tried selling the “blessing” idea by saying it exposed the weaknesses of the public health system so something can be done about them.

The pandemic is a crisis in progress that must be addressed as it moves and mutates. Worldwide, it has infected 99,728,247 and killed 2,137,828 people as of Jan. 24, 23:23 GMT.

Most experts abroad tracking the scourge say the new strains are not more deadly, but spread some 50-percent faster than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus causing COVID-19. This raises the possibility of the already strained health-care systems getting overloaded.

The production and the distribution of the vaccines have been slower than desired, fueling fears that the emerging of the variants would result in more people getting infected faster than they could be cured or vaccinated.

In the US, where newly installed President Biden inherited a largely mismanaged vaccination program, the pandemic has infected more than 25,690,000 people. The more contagious variants threaten to gobble up the gains made in curbing the spread of the virus.

American health officials have expressed frustration over the lack of clear answers to why the long-awaited vaccines are suddenly in short supply. Many inoculation appointments are being canceled and waiting lists getting longer. More supplies are expected in April yet.

The constriction in supply has spawned suggestions that the second dose of those who had been vaccinated be given to those waiting for their first. But when the second dose is due and is not available, will the delay of the followup dose affect the efficacy of the serum? Can another brand that is available be given as the second dose?

Based on data tabulated by worldOmeter from global official sources, the Philippines is faring better than the US. Against their respective per-one-million population, the US has 77,349 cases compared to the Philippines’ 4,652, and 1,293 US deaths to the Philippines’ 93.

In the tally of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Philippines, which was for a while last year the topnotcher, has fallen below Indonesia (now No. 1) whose 989,262 infection cases and 11,788 deaths are way above the Philippines’ 513,619 and 1,949.

Although experts are reassuring themselves that existing vaccines will be able to rein in the variants, there are not much clinical data available to support this optimism.

It would be interesting to see how the vaccines made by China – for which President Duterte has shown preference – compare with vaccines developed by the West in preventing COVID-19. Developers’ claimed safety and efficacy are subject to validation.

One basic difference is that the CoronaVac vaccine developed by Sinovac Biotech, a Beijing-based private drug firm, and the BBIBP-CorV vaccine made by Sinopharm, a state-owned group in China, are made the traditional way from inactivated or attenuated viruses.

Weakened viruses have been used for over a century in making vaccines. The body tolerates the attenuated virus and produces antibodies that act in its defense when the full-strength virus shows up. The method has been used to make vaccines against polio, rabies, and hepatitis A.

On the other hand, the new “mRNA vaccines”, such as those made by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, use an engineered copy of a natural chemical called “messenger RNA” to teach the cells of the body to produce an immune response.

One advantage of Sinovac is that it can be stored in a standard refrigerator at 2-8 degrees Celsius like the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine procured by several Philippine private firms. Moderna’s vaccine needs to be stored at minus-20C and Pfizer’s at minus-70C.

That makes the Sinovac and the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines easier to handle by developing countries that might not be able to store large stocks at such low temperatures.

Several Asian countries including Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines have signed deals for Sinovac. Indonesia began rolling out this month its mass vaccination using it.

The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have approved the use of another Chinese vaccine from Sinopharm, the same brand used illegally by the security guards of President Duterte to inoculate themselves.

In the background, China has been allegedly using its vaccines to advance its economic and geopolitical interests. President Xi Jinping reportedly has pledged US$2 billion for Africa, while offering Latin American and Caribbean countries $1-billion in loans to buy Chinese vaccines.

The details of the deal that Xi has offered to Duterte, including a supposed delivery last December, have not been disclosed. It has been noticed that Xi has the habit of leaving promises hanging, with hopeful clients kept on good behavior.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of January 26, 2021)

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