Who gets COVID vaccine first? No politics please
GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc (The Philippine Star) - October 16, 2020 - 12:00am

Science, not politics, must guide COVID-19 vaccination planning. Temptation is strong to grandstand. Prioritizing uniformed servicemen and the poor panders to any regime’s protectors and popularity base. It leaves out the most crucial sector in the fight against the deadly virus -- the healthcare workers. When do they take time off from the frontlines for that shot in the arm?

A vaccine is coming by this or next month, experts the world over observe. The leading dozen or so researchers in Europe, America and China are concluding clinical trials. Mass producers are being contracted in India. Governments are mapping out mass inoculations.

In the best of those plans, doctors, nurses and orderlies, lab and x-ray technicians, hospital staff and their families are being lined up first. Next are the elderly, over 65, and sickly in care homes or isolation. Along with them are those with comorbidities: suffering cancer, or lung, heart, kidney ailments that make them prone to lethal infection. Next are other frontlines: soldiers, policemen, watchmen, even transport employees, since they are in close public contact. Then, workers in critical industries like food and utilities. Lastly, the general populace.

In developing the H1N1 inoculant in 2009, pregnant women, infants and toddlers were among the top of the list. For C-19, they’re not included. That’s because none of the researches tested those with babes in the womb, and findings that youngsters are least prone to infection, even if only slight.

The poor are prioritized not for being poor per se, but more vulnerable due to poverty – like living in cramped shanties. Scattered upland farmers can come later. Those who can afford can pay their own way to the clinic for a jab.

Politicians tend to overpromise total immunization. That’s impracticable. All the C-19 vaccine researches have been shortcut, approved via “emergency-use authorizations.” From world experience, inoculants from EUAs are only 50-60 percent effective. Meanwhile usual vaccinees of measles, polio, TB, mumps, diphtheria, etc. comprise only 80 percent at best. Combining those figures, only 40-48 percent will be assumed protected. Not much herd immunity.

The Philippines must guard against political elitism in vaccination. Supplies will first come in trickles before global mass production. Rich countries will corner billions of vials, leaving only a fraction for poor and middle-income economies. Politicos and relatives will attempt to skip to the head of the queue. They risk EUA safeness. As the viral joke goes, “Vaccinate politicos first: if effective, they’re safe; if not, the country is safe.”

Vaccine efficacy and safety must come first. Fealty to China or Russia cannot cloud the procurement. Those countries are racing for the vaccine mostly for propaganda. Big pharma in the west is also notorious for sly self-promotion.

Procurers must know the characteristics of the vaccine. Like, was it made to stop C-19 contagion, or to prevent infection from turning severe. Only then can coherent inoculations be planned. Speed is crucial to cover all targets, but must be phased to inject first those most in need. Since vials need to be kept cold, distribution must be quick. Extra hands will be needed, like veterinarians, caregivers, even soldiers. Worthy of adoption perhaps is the hub-and-spoke plan of Britain’s National Health Service. “Hubs will supply the vaccine, protective equipment for staff, and other items,” The Economist reports. “Spokes will take three forms: mass vaccination centers, mobile sites (which may set up shop in polling stations) and roving teams (door-to-door visiting care homes and the housebound).”

How much will the vaccines cost? Estimates range from the equivalent of P300-P1,000. India’s largest manufacturer said Britain’s Oxford University has hired it to produce at $3 (P150) per vial. But that vaccine needs two doses.

*      *      *

Pandemic does not suspend the rule of law; COVID-19 cannot be weaponized for anarchy. Yet the reverse seemed unfolding inside padlocked giant paper mill Picop in Bislig City. Against court stays and rehabilitation proceedings, scrap dealers are ransacking company equipment. Purportedly they have been authorized by a labor arbiter to dispose of contested assets. Local officials and police look helpless. Even the court that ordered to cease and desist from dissipating the company assets is crying powerlessness. So the Rehab Receiver is asking Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta to ensure that right prevails.

Makati Regional Trial Court Branch 137 oversees Picop’s rehab. It inherited the task from another branch where the Land Bank, Picop’s main creditor, petitioned for rehab in 2008. That original branch had prohibited the removal of any equipment. Branch 137 upheld that order. All company assets are under court jurisdiction. Depending on the outcome of the proceedings – full rehab or liquidation – Branch 137 will then decide on what to do with the assets. That would also protect the interests of state-owned Land Bank. As with all contentious court-administered rehabs, some issues are brought to the Supreme Court for resolution. Thus the prolonged process.

Last Aug. 24, Branch 137 issued a cease and desist order against the looting. Court-appointed receiver Francisco Buencamino had reported to the judge the pullout of heavy equipment by unauthorized persons. Due to pandemic travel restrictions, the Makati court sheriff could not fly to Surigao and personally enforce the order. On Buencamino’s inquiry, the sheriff in Bislig agreed to do it instead. Buencamino returned to Branch 137 seeking deputization of the Bislig sheriff.

The judge hesitated, Buencamino indicated to CJ Peralta in a letter Oct. 12. He quoted the ruling, “(It) finds itself without any authority to further proceed until after the resolution of the pending petition for review on certiorari before the Supreme Court.”

This rendered the Aug. 24 order and the rehabilitation plan useless, Buencamino told Peralta, seeking action from the highest magistrate.

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