Makati Garden Club

FILIPINO WORLDVIEW - Roberto R. Romulo - The Philippine Star

Tucked behind the high wall separating EDSA from Urdaneta Village is a little-known oasis owned by Ayala Land, but maintained by the Makati Garden Club (MGC). Within is a tiny café called Maria Luisa’s Garden Room, one of my favorite restaurants with quality continental cuisine provided by Chef Robert Lilja. Its ambience can best be described in Latin terms, “simplex munditiis”, loosely translated as elegant simplicity, with a beautiful garden for outdoor dining. It is a unique charming setting so different from the concrete jungle surrounding it. Established eight years ago, Maria Luisa’s Garden Room is only open to members and their guests since Ayala Land does not allow commercial operations in the premises.

Recently, after disagreement within the Board on the management of the café, some directors (three out of eight) asked Ayala Land to close it down. It will be a pity if it does. Aside from providing excellent service, I understand that the earnings of the café support the operations of the club, upkeep of the garden, and also enables it to donate to several environmental charitable organizations. It also provides scholarships for deserving scholars in UP Los Baños. Last but not the least, MGC collaborates with Ayala and MACEA on several greening projects in Makati for much needed green spaces.

Global vaccine disparity

In my previous column, I highlighted the disparity in the global roll out of vaccines. This situation was brought about by the huge shortfall in vaccine production aggravated by vaccine nationalism, hoarding of supplies, and poor sharing or donation of COVID-19 vaccines.

The numbers are staggering. The global population is 7.8 billion. According to the WHO, to achieve herd immunity will require 70 to 80 percent of the population to develop immunity either from exposure to the virus or through vaccination.  This will require about five to six billion single doses or double that if two doses are required. While developed countries have vaccinated a meaningful proportion of their population, some countries are still waiting for their first deliveries.

In the Philippines herd immunity will translate to 70 to 80 million doses just for the first jab. So far, the Philippines has administered between two to 2.5 percent, according to Health Secretary Francisco Duque. Because of a failure to secure supplies early, the Philippines has had to depend on China and the COVAX facility for its supply of vaccines. COVAX itself is far behind its target, and in any case will provide vaccines for no more than 20 percent of the population. The Philippines will have to source directly from suppliers to cover an additional 40 to 50 percent of the population. Now that the Chinese vaccines – Sinovac and Sinopharm – are on the WHO EUL, even this source will be competitive.

Developed countries are increasingly under pressure to pay more than lip service to the maxim “nobody is safe until everybody is safe.” Critics are saying that closing the global vaccine divide is not only a clear moral imperative to act, but that there is a rational case as well. The longer the virus continues to spread unchecked, the higher the risk of more deadly or contagious variants emerging against which the current vaccines will be less effective. The cycle will then begin all over again, even in countries that have achieved herd immunity.

COVAX facility in crisis

COVAX has so far shipped 81 million doses, a long way away from its target of providing vaccines for 20 percent of the population of less-developed and middle-income countries. Recently it was able to raise $ 2.4 billion from nearly 40 donor governments, the private sector and foundations, bringing the total pledged to the COVAX pre-purchase fund to $ 9.6 billion to date. This will enable the facility to procure 1.8 billion doses for lower-income countries. COVAX has also received pledges of first dose vaccine donations from several countries, notably the US and the EU – bringing the total to about 200 million. However, COVAX will need more and it faces severe shortfalls following India’s decision to halt shipments of vaccines to take care of its own surge.

The G7 summit meeting this coming June 11 to 13 will have COVID-19 at the top of the agenda. The US is expected to announce that it will donate 500 million doses of Pfizer/Biontech vaccines and will urge others to likewise step up. Despite all these initiatives – remember COVAX aims to account for only 20 percent of low and middle-income population - the fact remains that global demand far exceeds global supply.

Increasing production capacity

To address the supply crunch, India and South Africa proposed a temporary waiver of the WTO’s IPR agreement that would permit countries to suspend intellectual property protections for COVID-19 medical products – including vaccines, medicines, diagnostics, personal protective equipment, and ventilators – for the duration of the pandemic. This will allow countries to waive their IPR commitment to allow more manufacturers to produce vaccines and related products using proprietary technology developed by the original makers.

The proposal now has 62 co-sponsors and is supported by more than 100 of the WTO’s 164 members, most recently the United States. China and Russia also followed suit. But the EU, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Japan, Norway, Singapore, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the UK oppose the joint proposal.

Given this impasse, there is a long way to go before a waiver is adopted. Even if granted, much work remains to improve manufacturing capacity. Of course, just the threat of a waiver may help drive down the cost of vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostic tools, and result in increased access in the developing world. The threat may also lead to voluntary licensing agreements on terms favorable to developing countries as is happening.

Philippine vaccine capability

This is an opportunity for the Philippines to step up and build its capability to produce COVID-19 vaccines and others on its own through partnerships and collaboration with global companies, with either government or our private sector. To date only the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) has the capability and that is only for BCG vaccines for tuberculosis. This after years of history of vaccination in the Philippines when King Charles V sent a medical team to the Philippines 1805 to conduct the world’s first immunization campaign. Vaccine production capability was established a year after that expedition. Chronic underfunding and lack of attention has relegated local vaccine production as an afterthought. With COVID-19 expected to become endemic, the need for local vaccine manufacturing capability becomes even more urgent.

I understand the innovative tycoon Manny Pangilinan is exploring a partnership opportunity with a Western vaccine manufacturer.

Lessons from Indonesia

Perhaps we can learn from Indonesia, just as we should from their firm handling of their South China Sea dispute with China. Last week Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Indonesian president’s envoy Luhut Binsar Panjaitan and agreed to deepen cooperation on vaccine production.

This would include support for the building of a regional vaccine production center in Indonesia which would entail cooperation on the whole industrial chain for the vaccines, including research and development and production.

China has provided the bulk of Indonesia’s 92.2 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to date, largely made up of semi-finished forms of the Sinovac vaccine. Indonesia has so far fully vaccinated five percent of its 270 million population and the results so far has boosted its confidence on Sinovac’s efficacy.

The Philippines, of course, does not need to rely only on China to develop its own vaccine production capability. There are currently 287 vaccines under development around the world – many using new technology for anti-virals - of which 102 are already in the clinical phase.

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