‘Made from China’
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - February 10, 2020 - 12:00am

More likely than not, the incidence and mortality of infection from the 2019 novel corona virus acute respiratory disease, or nCoV for short, will continue to be on the rising trend. It might get worse before it gets any better, as we say.

As of latest monitoring by the World Health Organization (WHO), the flu-like nCov that erupted last December from Wuhan, China has so far spread to 28 countries across the globe. At current speed the nCoV is spreading from human-to-human contact, it is feared that the mortality count might surpass the number of people who died as a direct result of the much deadlier corona virus called as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) that originated in Guangdong, also from China in 2003.

The nCoV infection outbreak happened at a time of the Lunar Year celebration in China last month when Chinese people travelled to spend their holidays with relatives in other places and to other countries. Hence, the rapid spread of nCov infection reaching neighbor countries like the Philippines to as far as the United States.

While virus outbreaks like nCoV would first originate from unknown sources and spread rapidly, the pace of discovery of cure and treatment does not come as fast. Scientists, gynomists, epidemeologists, medical technologists and researchers, doctors, and other experts are now scrambling to find a vaccine against this newest health threat afflicting thousands of people and killed hundreds already. 

It would take at least a decade to develop a vaccine that could help the human’s natural anti-bodies to fight disease-causing bacteria and viruses. Dr. Beaver Tamesis, president of the Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Association of the Philippines (PHAP), cited it takes this long for research and development of new life-saving vaccines and medicines before they could be readily available. Tamesis is the president and managing director of the Philippine branch of the US-based pharmaceutical and health care giant Merck, Sharp & Dohme Corp.

But the best medicine, as far as the doctors are concerned, is still prevention.

The same sentiments were echoed by Doctors Diana Edralin and Edsel Maurice Salvana who joined Tamesis as featured guests during our breakfast news forum last week at the Kapihan sa Manila Bay at Café Adriatico in Remedios Circle, Malate. Edralin is from Swiss pharma giant Roche and is currently PHAP director while Salvana is an infectious disease specialist director of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at the University of the Philippines (UP)-National Institute of Health (NIH).

Tamesis admitted it is quite very costly for big pharmaceutical companies to invest so much to discover and develop new vaccines and medicines. Citing their own experience from Merck, as much as $1 billion was invested to develop the anti-ebola vaccine in 2005. It was several years after ebola outbreak of epidemic proportion hit New York and some cases were also reported in the Philippines, he cited, when the WHO, the Food and Drug Administration, the academia and companies like Merck “racheted” it up for a mass production of anti-ebola vaccines.  

Tamesis reiterated the willingness of PHAP to the Department of Health (DOH) – as the lead agency in the Inter-Agency Task Force Against Coronavirus – in closely monitoring the “supply chain” to prevent shortage of basic essential medicines that may be needed in the wake of the nCoV outbreaks. PHAP, he added, is also on guard against overpricing of pharmaceutical products like the surgical masks that have become scarce and expensive due to public panic over the nCoV infection.

Nonetheless, he pointed out, new vaccines are being developed every year because certain strains of viruses and bacteria mutate. Thus, existing vaccines to immunize people against highly infectious diseases like influenza (or flu) and pneumonia can no longer recognize and kill them. 

“And now this nCoV, what is really critical is prevention as we all agree here and to think we can do that to prevent influenza which is more widely spread and easy to catch if only we can have regular vaccines against influenza,” Tamesis stressed. “Although there is no 100-percent in life.  If you get the vaccine, you can be totally protected against infection, or it can shorten (the duration) of your illness. So don’t avoid it (vaccines),” he added.

One of the two Chinese who died here of 2019-nCoV had influenza B. But there is no data that supports most of those who contracted 2019-nCoV have flu. But the three doctors were one in giving this free advice to all. “If you have nCoV and you have pre-existing flu, you might be at higher risk for death, so it would be advisable to get your flu shot,” they chorused.

Over the weekend, Salvana welcomed as a bit of good news on his Twitter post that the first confirmed Philippine nCoV case, a Chinese woman tourist has now recovered: “...and is no longer shedding virus. She needs 1 more negative test to go home. This shows that nCoV is NOT always fatal (2% mortality is the latest) AND recovery is MORE likely than dying.” 

Salvana though is getting worried that the rising cases of suspected nCoV infection may “overwhelm” the present capacity and capability of the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) of the DOH to test the sample specimens taken from patients and persons under investigation (PUIs). Prior to this, the DOH sent the RITM laboratory samples to Victorian Infectious Disease Reference Laboratory in Melbourne, Australia for confirmatory tests. The RITM results would come out at least within the 24 to 48 hours and made public to the local media by the DOH. But it took at least five days before the DOH was able to release the results of tests done in Australia.

Salvana explained that using reagents and the primer coming from Japan, RITM has been examining samples collected from PUIs to determine if they indeed are infected with nCoV. But these are very costly, he rued. A fellow scientist of Salvana at the UP-NIH, clinician Raul Destura told the Senate public hearing last week on the nCoV about the test kits that will be released next week to the DOH for its evaluation. “This was developed two weeks ago immediately after they released the whole genome sequence of the virus,” Destura disclosed. 

At the Kapihan sa Manila Bay, Edralin announced PHAP’s offer to donate for free complete sets of nCoV testing kits to the DOH. “To complement with what the government had already started, our member companies are willing to partner with the DOH to build capabilities on diagnostics,” Edralin said. However, Health Secretary Dr. Francisco Duque clarified such diagnostic kit must first come under validation of the WHO before this can be used as internationally accepted test results for the nCoV.

Alas, even testing kits for imported virus “made from China” must pass through international standards.

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