Sickness and health

DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco - The Philippine Star

The COVID pandemic isn’t over, but Junior is taking his time appointing a Secretary of Health. The Officer-in-Charge seems a competent bureaucrat, but her mission is to merely keep the DOH operating as smoothly as possible until a new Secretary is appointed.

Because we don’t have a SOH, we don’t have a senior official with enough gravitas to recommend or make decisions to proactively deal with what remains of the pandemic. We seem to believe it is all over and catching it is just like catching a cold or a flu.

Researchers have published more than 200,000 studies about the virus. Still, the Washington Post pointed out, the virus has kept many of its secrets, from how it mutates so rapidly to why it kills some while leaving others largely unscathed.

Perhaps, if these mysteries were solved, the world’s scientists might be able to have new strategies to curb COVID’s spread and guard against the next pandemic, WaPo observed in a recent article.

Yet, there are things we should be able to do that we are not doing at the moment. Making a new bivalent vaccine available and allowing its use here in the Philippines is urgent business for DOH.

The US FDA explained in a release that the COVID virus changes over time and people must keep their protection against COVID-19 up to date. Right now, that means getting a bivalent COVID-19 vaccine booster dose.

The US FDA authorized bivalent formulations of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines for use as a single booster dose at least two months after completing primary or booster vaccination.

These are called bivalent COVID-19 vaccines because they contain two components from the original virus and the Omicron variant.

COVID-19 vaccines do not prevent infection, but can help protect against severe illness, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19. As the virus changes and your immunity naturally decreases over time, you may lose some of that protection.

The US and Singapore have started giving this updated bivalent booster to their citizens. We are not even talking about this here.

I am not sure the private sector would be as enthusiastic about procuring this updated vaccine after their bad experience dealing with DOH on the original vaccine. The private companies that bought vaccines to help the government lost P5.1 billion when a large part of the vaccine stocks expired after DOH dilly dallied on permission to use these as boosters.

Joey Concepcion, who led the private sector in the effort, complained that the Health Technology Assessment Council (HTAC) ignored their appeal since April to allow second booster vaccinations. The lack of urgency on the part of HTAC and the DOH caused the bulk disposal of those hard-earned COVID-19 vaccines, Concepcion lamented.

“We first sounded the alarm about low booster uptake in March, and about the expiring vaccines in early April. This could have easily been prevented had the HTAC simply listened and learned from the guidance of the US CDC back in March when it recommended additional boosters for those as young as 50 years old,” he said.

Concepcion emphasized that the private sector had repeatedly asked that it be allowed to administer second boosters using the vaccines it purchased.

‘We were willing to get vaccinated. There was not even a need for a vaccine mandate. The expiry dates of the vaccines had already been extended and there was nothing that could, be done but to accept this preventable loss,” he added.

I really don’t understand the delay after the US CDC authorized second boosters. It isn’t as if we have better facilities or scientists than the US CDC to justify additional study time. They are all reading the same medical journals. In the end, we just follow the US agencies anyway, both FDA and CDC.

The DOH has always been behind in handling our vaccine requirements. Remember how a Cabinet member was accused by another  member of dropping the ball by letting the vaccine procurement contract gather dust on his desk for months.

This is why we need new leadership at DOH and no one with connections to the previous leadership should be in the running. We need someone respectable with a proven track record in public health and infectious diseases to lead the DOH now.

The virus is still very much around. Over the past week, friends have caught it because they have gone back to their normal routines.

Some of my former co-workers had their first face-to-face meeting last week and within two days, there was a report of an infection. A fellow journalist went to Cebu to attend the inauguration of a hotel/restaurant and came back to Manila with a souvenir of her visit that required her to isolate for days.

She said: “Ang galing ng boosters. I’m really an advocate of the second booster. Considering I have asthma, my oxygen level didn’t fall below 97. I just felt fluish on the first day, but didn’t have fever. Pero nagka-sore throat then full-blown asthma.

“In comparison, our younger colleagues had it really bad when they caught it earlier. One had fever and another had to take mulnopirovir kasi her O2 level fell to 92. They only received one booster kasi below 50 pa sila.”

The one big reason why we must try not to get infected with COVID is the possibility of developing long COVID. In the US one in five COVID-19 survivors, including some who were never very sick as a result of their infections, develop long COVID, according to the US CDC.

“The condition itself is one huge question mark – a persistent illness marked by a variety of symptoms, including fatigue, fever, shortness of breath, chest pain, pounding heartbeat, headaches, difficulty thinking or concentrating, dizziness and joint pain.”

And doctors don’t know what to do about this condition.

One thing the pandemic should have taught us is that sickness and health of our people matters. One thing we found out too is that our health infrastructure sucks big time.

So, will a new SOH enable us to address pandemics better? Will a new SOH get us this new bivalent vaccine sooner?

Junior should act more decisively.



Boo Chanco’s email address is [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco.


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