Warp speed

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - December 14, 2020 - 12:00am

While the general global mood is jubilation that a vaccine against COVID-19 is finally being administered, there are people who are still wondering if they should get the shot.

Skepticism about the COVID vaccines being rolled out is understandable, considering the unprecedented speed and the new, still untested technology used in their development.

People are hesitating to get the vaccines including the one developed by US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech.

On the other hand, what’s the alternative? Can we afford to wait for the regular timeframe for vaccine development, which is about a decade or more?

Think of what the global mood would be like in this holiday season if the reputable pharma companies and research groups still had not come up with a vaccine to end this public health nightmare. Remember that there are still no vaccines for AIDS and SARS, and in the animal kingdom, for African swine flu.

The rollout of the Pfizer vaccine in the United Kingdom, and this week in the US after its Food and Drug Administration issued emergency use authorization Saturday, is the best news so far in this horrible year for the millions, possibly billions of people across the planet who are despairing over lost jobs and livelihoods, who have seen their businesses collapse and their life savings disappear into a sinkhole.

It offers hope for those who are mourning the loss of loved ones to a deadly disease – hope that they will see no more death, sickness and debilitation among those they hold dear.

The drug regulators of the US and UK meet standards set by the World Health Organization. Drugs that these regulators have vetted can be quickly approved for mass distribution in other countries.

So the Pfizer vaccine should breeze through our own Food and Drug Administration. The shots being developed by US biotech firm Moderna and UK pharma AstraZeneca together with Oxford University are also expected to get the nod of the US FDA and its UK counterpart.

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There’s a scramble among countries to get hold of the vaccines from these companies, particularly the one from Pfizer since it’s already available and approved by the regulators.

In our case, I’ve talked to several businessmen from micro to medium enterprises and even the major operators, and they have a common sentiment: the government isn’t moving fast enough to get a vaccine here.

They welcomed the order of President Duterte for the FDA to issue emergency use authorization for the COVID vaccines. But first the shots must be procured. We don’t know if it’s just the stringent procurement laws that have kept the government from moving fast enough.

Thankfully, the private sector is not constrained by such laws. So top businessmen have pooled their resources to place advance orders for an initial 2.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. That’s good for only about 1.2 million people, with half of the doses to be donated to the government and the other half to go to the companies’ employees. But more doses will be coming, according to chief proponent Joey Concepcion of Go Negosyo, the presidential adviser on entrepreneurship.

Apart from the private sector, the national government may also consider allowing local government units to negotiate directly for the procurement of vaccines for their constituents.

Several mayors in Metro Manila, still the epicenter of the pandemic in our country, can do this more quickly than certain national government agencies that can’t even make up their minds on the usefulness and efficacy of COVID saliva tests.

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The race to produce a vaccine received a shot in the arm from the US government, which partnered with the private sector in launching Operation Warp Speed. The goal was to deliver 300 million doses of safe COVID vaccines, with minimum efficacy of 50 percent, with the initial batch rolled out by January 2021.

An initial funding of $10 billion was allocated and later raised to $18 billion. Recipients of the funds were Johnson & Johnson (Janssen Pharmaceuticals in Belgium), AstraZeneca / University of Oxford, Moderna, Novavax, Merck and IAV, Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline.

Pfizer initially said it was not part of Operation Warp Speed because it declined federal funding for its vaccine R&D. But it was the company that produced the first reliable vaccine with 95 percent efficacy, at truly warp speed. The US government placed an advance order for 100 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine for $2 billion, and said this effectively made the company part of Operation Warp Speed.

We need around that many doses to vaccinate enough of our population to achieve herd immunity. But the national government doesn’t have that kind of money. So it might accept vaccines donated by China.

As of the weekend, Peru had suspended clinical trials of the COVID vaccine of Chinese pharmaceutical giant Sinopharm, after one of the test volunteers developed symptoms akin to Guillain-Barre syndrome, an immune disorder that attacks the nerves and can cause paralysis of the entire body.

But maybe this is just a temporary setback for Sinopharm. UK officials have issued an allergy alert for the Pfizer vaccine, while US health experts caution that COVID survivors should refrain from getting the vaccine for now.

Last Friday night, however, a Filipino nurse in the UK, Leo Quijano, told us on OneNews’ “The Chiefs” that she’s a COVID survivor and no such warning was given to her when she received her Pfizer shot. And except for initial dizziness, she felt fine, she told us.

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Meanwhile, over the weekend in the US, regulators said they wouldn’t stop allergy-prone people from taking the Pfizer vaccine. Adrenaline shots and Benadryl will instead be on hand in case of allergic reactions among the vaccine recipients.

I’ve also checked out the ingredients in the Pfizer vaccine, now posted online, and I don’t see anything that might trigger an anaphylactic reaction in me. So I’m ready to accept the advice from epidemiologists, that there is no 100 percent safe and efficacious vaccine, and I will get my shot… if it ever gets here.

Our government has informed the public that talks are ongoing for the procurement of vaccines from various countries and companies including Pfizer.

At this point, however, the private sector initiative shows more promise in getting COVID vaccines to the country faster. And the local government units might do a better job in procurement.

We need our own Operation Warp Speed to get the vaccines here ASAP.

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