Light at the end of a long, long tunnel

BIZLINKS - Rey Gamboa (The Philippine Star) - February 25, 2021 - 12:00am

Everybody now talks with welcome relief about the light at the end of the tunnel, but really, lest we become too overjoyed, that tunnel is going to be a long, long one.

Currently, about 6.24 million doses are already being administered in the world daily, according to the global COVID-19 vaccine tracker published by Bloomberg. The world is now on its biggest mass vaccination push, but still not enough by a long stretch to bring us all back to the old normal anytime soon.

A growing number of countries have already started mass vaccination. Ironically, not one drop has yet come to the Philippines – well, if you don’t count the illegal doses given to the President’s security team, several Cabinet members, and 100,000 Chinese nationals working in the country.

Of course, not every Filipino is keen to have a jab. Still, the desire to vaccinate 70 percent of the country’s population is the expressed target by our government to safely restart the economy, even if it is still currently scrambling to secure all the 1.5 billion doses (two shots per person) needed.

How soon the Philippines is able to achieve its target is not an easy answer, given the many uncertainties associated with the vaccination rollout and the threat of new virus variants – or, more horrifying, a new virus.

Bloomberg, which currently manages one of the best vaccination counters for the world, projects at this point in time that herd immunity – based alone on the ongoing COVID-19 vaccine rollout – could take as long as seven years.

Uneven pace

Rich countries that have secured doses for their whole population will generally get there faster. Israel, mainly because of its smaller population, is looking at a two-month timeframe. The UK is optimistic of getting to the finish line in six months. The US is targeting the end before the year is over, although it may take New York a couple of months longer.

China and India, even if both of them have vaccine manufacturing plants within their borders, have to grapple with their over-one-billion population sizes. China is already doing the second biggest daily vaccination rollout of over one million in the world, but if its pace remains the same, could still take 5.5 years.

Meanwhile, poor countries that cannot afford to buy their own vaccines have not even started giving jabs for their most vulnerable frontline health workers, especially where the contagion and death rates per million people rank higher.

Many impoverished and war-ravaged African and European nations, those outside the ambit of the EU for the latter, are relying on the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) scheme, a global vaccination initiative founded by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Early on in the pandemic, COVAX was able to raise $6 billion to secure two billion doses planned for equitable distribution to 190 needy countries by the end of the year. The Philippines is one of them, with an allocation of 5.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford (AZ) vaccine. WHO issued a green light early this month for its use despite controversies.

Under COVAX, too, the Philippines is to receive 117,000 doses of the ultra-cold chain, but preferred Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine within the first quarter of 2021. We can expect to have an increased allocation of the same vaccine by the second quarter with 40 million additional jabs subsequently secured by COVAX.

Still, these may even not be enough to cover for all those prioritized in the first level of the country’s immunization scheme.

‘Vaccine nationalism’

The Philippines had belatedly woken up late to realize that the vaccination efforts ongoing in Israel and the UK pose manageable health risks, and best of all, have been liberating their respective economies by allowing freer intra-movement of products and services.

Currently, global vaccine supply continues to be tight, with many rich countries having coveted up more than their population sizes. Canada, for example, has ordered five times more than what its total population needs. Similarly for the UK (3.6 times), EU (2.7 times), Australia (2. 5 times), and the US double.

The United Nations has just issued a call against what it terms as “vaccine nationalism,” a current practice by rich countries to over-secure their stockpiles. With the vaccines still newly in use, long-term immunity is a big uncertain factor. Manufacturers say a complete dose is good for one to two years, but which is not guaranteed.

Uniform rollout

Meanwhile, the call for a more uniformed rollout of the vaccine is gaining headwind with scientists and epidemiologists saying that an uneven vaccination in the world will only waste the billions spent by wealthier nations.

Vaccination against COVID-19 must be done almost simultaneously across the globe, and signing up with COVAX carries this implicit assent. Participating countries (including the US, which just recently signed up) that have secured more than enough doses are being asked to be mindful of this.

More vaccines are expected in production later this year as current manufacturers hurdle supply chain challenges, and new vaccines are able to successfully pass trials. But the real test will be how quickly governments will be able to bring them to their citizens.

Most of the global population, now at 7.8 billion, is waiting. There are still so many uncertainties, and even without any major hitches, a declaration by the WHO that this pandemic is truly over is not going to come soon.

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Should you wish to share any insights, write me at Link Edge, 25th Floor, 139 Corporate Center, Valero Street, Salcedo Village, 1227 Makati City. Or e-mail me at reydgamboa@yahoo.com. For a compilation of previous articles, visit www.BizlinksPhilippines.net.

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