Guinea pigs
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - August 17, 2020 - 12:00am

There’s a lot of skepticism around the world over the vaccine against COVID-19 that Russia has rushed into mass production even before extensive clinical trials.

While we can understand the urgency of producing a vaccine, and we should all be glad that some 100 potential vaccines are currently in various stages of development around the world, we should always remember that the cure (or inoculation) must not be worse than the disease.

And we should get on with life on the assumption that there won’t be a magic bullet against coronavirus disease 2019 to make our Christmas 2020 a merry one – although President Duterte might get his clean phone line to Jesus in Bethlehem by December.

There was initial excitement over the explanation that the speedy approval of Sputnik V could be credited to rapid advances in research and development as well as Russia’s previous work on a vaccine for SARS, on which R&D for Sputnik V piggybacked.

Who knows, Russian President Vladimir Putin might even be blazing a trail in vaccine development by showing the world that the critical third phase of clinical trials may be skipped with little risk to the vaccine recipients (including, he says, his daughter).

As for us Filipinos, made vaccine-phobic by Dengvaxia, when it became known that Sputnik V would be out even before the third phase of clinical trials involving thousands of people, the joke that went viral was to present as vaccine guinea pigs congressmen, PhilHealth officials and some of the folks responsible for the economic and public health hole we’re in.

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Even drugs that prove to be highly effective can have unintended consequences. The anti-bacterial sulfanilamide, for example, saved a lot of lives and limbs during World War II. It was reportedly the powder used to treat wounded soldiers depicted in the Tom Hanks / Matt Damon movie “Saving Private Ryan.”

But when sulfanilamide powder was used on me for a tiny flea bite (we had a dog) when I was a toddler, I developed an allergic reaction that I learned only a few years ago is called Stevens-Johnson Syndrome. It’s a severe disorder of the skin and mucous membrane that put me in the hospital for about a month and nearly killed me, according to my mother, and left me disfigured for life.

I still love dogs, fleas and all, but I’ve always been wary of drugs, particularly antibiotics, to which I’ve had allergic reactions. Some years ago I landed in the emergency room of a hospital in Manhattan for a severe allergic reaction or anaphylaxis: my face became so bloated I couldn’t open my eyes, my airway swelled and I couldn’t breathe. Fortunately, there was no recurrence of Stevens-Johnson Syndrome.

After that experience, as recommended by the doctor in Manhattan, for many years I carried around with me a hypodermic syringe filled with antihistamine that I could stick into any fleshy part of my body in case I suffered another bout of anaphylaxis.

So I would stick to my face mask, face shield, alcohol, Lysol soap and spray as well as physical distancing while waiting for the willing guinea pigs to manifest adverse side effects of all the COVID vaccines in development.

Incidentally, a sulfanilamide elixir containing toxic diethylene glycol, which was developed by S.E. Massengill Company in Bristol, Tennessee killed over 100 people in 15 US states from California to Virginia from September to October 1937. The disaster led to the passage of the US Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act in 1938.

Information on the internet says Massengill, a family-owned pharmaceutical company, was acquired by Beecham plc. in 1971, which merged in 1989 into SmithKline Beecham. Since 2000, it has been British pharma GlaxoSmithKline. Massengill, meanwhile, was reportedly sold to Prestige Brands on Dec. 20, 2011 for $660 million. I wonder if the statute of limitations for suing Massengill for my illness has expired.

Big pharma obviously is a tough legal opponent, so it’s not easy to pursue damages or imprisonment if you have an adverse reaction to a drug. Those who filed lawsuits against pharmaceutical giant Sanofi-Pasteur over Dengvaxia face a bruising legal battle.

We can only presume that the companies themselves probably don’t want such lawsuits, and that they do their utmost to produce drugs that can pass rigorous tests for safety and efficacy. Their long-term existence and profitability depend on the reliability of their products.

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This is why government-sponsored medical R&D can sometimes be a problem, if politics is injected into it. Concerns have been raised that Russia is putting national pride ahead of health safety in rolling out Sputnik V, a.k.a. Putin-Cee (and Rush Yan) among Pinoys, before the third phase of clinical trials.

Filipinos might be part of that phase three, if there are willing participants. Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire told “The Chiefs” last week on OneNews / TV5 that drugs can have different effects and efficacy on different human races, and it would be useful to see how Filipinos would react to Sputnik V. About 1,000 Filipinos are reportedly being eyed for the vaccine’s phase three trials.

Some 10,000 Cavite residents are set to participate in field trials for COVID vaccines being developed by pharmaceutical companies in the US and UK, according to Gov. Jonvic Remulla.

Top US disease expert Anthony Fauci has said definitive results of studies on the vaccine being developed by US biotech company Moderna could be out by November.

The vaccine would still have to be mass-produced and then distributed. The most optimistic timeline for commercial availability would be in the first quarter of 2021.

China is said to have the vaccine that is in the most advanced stage of field testing. The Israelis and Indians might also surprise us with their own vaccine.

Whoever wins the vaccine race, we must proceed with caution in using the product. We don’t want to stop COVID-19, only to face another public health crisis later due to vaccine side effects, some of which could lead to permanent debilitation and even death.

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