FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - November 26, 2020 - 12:00am

It’s not time to celebrate yet. The public health protocols will have to remain in place for months to come.

Four companies have successfully tested their COVID-19 vaccine variants. This week, two of them will seek emergency use authorization from the US Food and Drug Administration. Some of the vaccine may actually be administered beginning December.

Anti-COVID-19 vaccines are actually being administered in large quantities in two countries: Russia and China. However, the third stage testing they need to do remains to be completed. Russia claims its Sputnik V vaccine is 94 percent effective. An independent international panel will have to confirm that.

We need to remember that it is not the availability of vaccines that will terminate this ruinous pandemic. It is the successful vaccination of a critical mass of human beings that will do that.

The massive vaccination that will happen over the next months (and probably years) will be the largest logistics operation in all of human history. We have 7 billion human beings. We need to vaccinate about 4 billion of them over the next period to achieve some sort of herd immunity.

This will be the largest public health operation civilization will undertake. It will also be the most costly. This operation will be a test of the world’s ability to cooperate to fight a common enemy.

Administering the vaccines on a large scale will not be easy. The Pfizer vaccine, for instance, requires storage at -70 degrees centigrade. That calls for super cold chains that do not exist yet, except for a few rich countries.

Also, most of the vaccines that might be ready by next month will need to be administered in two doses separated by three weeks. After the first dose, the recipient will still be vulnerable to infection.

There are quite a number of things we still do not know.

No one knows how long the immunity will last after vaccination. If the immunity turns out to be for only a short period, the vaccination may have to be repeated again and again until the deadly virus is virtually extinct.

We are not quite sure how many people will submit to vaccination voluntarily. In the US, for instance, there are quite a number of people who are distrustful of vaccines. All sorts of wild conspiracy theories that proliferate in contemporary American culture encourage distrust for vaccination. A large segment of American society, particularly the far right, has fallen into a general distrust of science.

Then there is the problem of funding. Some of the world’s poorer countries cannot afford mass vaccination. The richer countries will have to help in this regard. But no program for cross-subsidizing vaccination programs is in place yet.

The matter of setting up a program for cross-subsidies was being discussed at the last G-20 summit when US President Donald Trump stepped out to play golf.

In our case, the Department of Finance has identified up to P73 billion in ready funding to procure vaccines. The funding includes contributions from the government financial institutions, budgetary allocations, emergency borrowing and bilateral assistance from our friends.

This amount should be enough to vaccinate about 60 million Filipinos. That brings us close to the threshold of 70 percent of the population necessary to develop some sort of herd immunity.

The private sector is stepping up to support vaccination by purchasing amounts of the vaccine themselves. Large companies such as San Miguel, ICTSI and SM have committed to support the vaccination program with their own funds. This is truly heroic. It will help push our vaccination program well into the threshold for herd immunity.

When the pandemic broke out, the private sector stepped up to the plate. They supported the construction of quarantine facilities, helped in the acquisition of test kits and supported relief for the vulnerable communities. The support from the corporate sector is unprecedented.

Now, once more, the private sector is rising to the occasion. They are putting their financial muscle to the wheel to help supplement the amount of vaccine that will be available to our people.

In addition, we expect to get some more help from our friends in the region. The IMF has put together a fund to support vaccine acquisition by poorer countries. The G-20 nations will likely put a program in place to support vaccine availability among the poorer countries.

When Joe Biden assumes the US presidency on Jan. 20, among his first acts is to restore his country’s membership in the World Health Organization (WHO). This international institution was indispensable in keeping the world informed about the virus. Now it is the central agency building a mechanism for global distribution of the vaccine.

It is good that Trump, who leans towards vaccine nationalism, will soon be out of office. He has been a curse on global cooperation not only in battling this pandemic but also in mitigating climate change.

There is light at the end of the tunnel. But there is still some way to go.

In our case, widespread administration of the available vaccines will likely commence in the second quarter next year. We will likely be administering the vaccines well into 2022.

Meantime, new rapid test kits are being developed. We will have to do more tests, hopefully at lower cost, for months to come. Rapid results will be helpful in containing outbreaks. We will have to continue testing, tracing and treatment well into next year. Public health protocols will have to remain in place.

Each one has the responsibility to observe these protocols.

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