Give him the slingshot

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - December 18, 2020 - 12:00am

Live with it: we still have many more months of waiting for a reliable COVID vaccine to arrive in our poor country.

By poor I mean we’re financially needy; the pandemic has highlighted this. We’re in a tricycle, watching the wealthy pass us by in their Porsches and Mercedes Benzes, on our way to the same destination: deliverance from the pandemic.

Or was it a case of somebody dropping the ball, as Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. tweeted? People are offering him slingshots for his steel ball bearings.

As speculation swirled on the identity of the person who dropped the ball, President Duterte pointedly ignored the controversy in his weekly report to the nation on Wednesday night.

But yesterday, as fingers pointed chiefly at Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, presidential spokesman Harry Roque Jr. said Duterte had told teflon Duque to explain what Locsin and Philippine Ambassador to the US Babe Romualdez had lamented (according to several accounts): that negotiations for the Pfizer vaccine started way back in July last year, facilitated by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, but it took forever for the Department of Health (DOH) to approve the confidentiality disclosure agreement sought by Pfizer.

Duque said the agreement has now been finalized, but we all know that by this time, we have been pushed down the long waiting line for the Pfizer vaccine by the richer countries, and Pompeo has only a few weeks left in office.

The Duterte administration seems clueless about the depth of Filipinos’ longing to get not just any COVID vaccine, but the first vaccine to be approved by both US and UK food regulators, with a high 95 percent efficacy. That happens to be the Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine. Filipinos feel Locsin’s fury that we failed to secure 10 million doses next month – like Singapore! – of that literal shot in the arm.

*      *      *

During the Wednesday night briefing at Malacañang, Duterte let vaccine czar Carlito Galvez report on the status of vaccine procurement.

In a nutshell, the status is this: the earliest we can begin COVID vaccination is March 2021. The first shots will come from China’s Sinovac and Russia’s Gamaleya Institute.

It’s still unclear if we’re buying these vaccines or getting them for free; Beijing has been donating its vaccines to poor countries. And if they’re donated, we also don’t know what’s the quid pro quo.

With no other vaccine brand available, those at the top of the list of priority recipients – health and security frontliners plus indigents and the elderly ­–  can’t be too picky and will have to accept the shots.

By the time the initial batches of vaccines from Western pharmaceutical giants arrive, by late May at the earliest, the Chinese vaccines would have been all used up.

If those 10 million doses of Pfizer vaccines had arrived by Federal Express next month at Clark airport, as disclosed by Locsin, imagine the consequent depth of Filipinos’ resistance to the Chinese vaccines.

*      *      *

Galvez has said he has no idea who Locsin wants to hit with steel ball bearings.

The vaccine czar on Wednesday night reported that the government is finalizing orders for 60 million doses of COVID vaccines from different sources, for delivery from March up to the third quarter of 2021. That’s good for 30 million people – not yet the 70 percent of the population that’s needed to attain herd immunity.

Apart from the Chinese and Russian firms, the government is procuring from the UK’s AstraZeneca / University of Oxford as well as US companies Moderna, Johnson & Johnson (Janssen), Novavax and yes, Pfizer. But these vaccines are expected to begin arriving here between May and July.

According to some reports, Russia has started administering the Gamaleya vaccine, initially to its soldiers. Philippine health experts say the Russians have a pretty reliable pharma sector, although to track the progress of their COVID vaccination program, we Filipinos ourselves must translate the research, which is written in Russian Cyrillic script, to English.

As for Sinovac, Philippine officials have pointed out that the company is hounded by accusations of bribing drug regulators (a.k.a. kickvac), and not by serious concerns about the safety and efficacy of its vaccine.

Why give priority to the Chinese and Russian vaccines? The Sinovac shot is said to be the most expensive of all.

Because, Philippine officials have explained, the companies had a head start in research, clinical trials and emergency rollout, plus they have massive production capabilities. China, where the coronavirus first emerged, was months ahead in developing a vaccine plus a touted treatment.

Both Beijing and Moscow are friends of the Duterte administration and are willing to commit substantial doses to the Philippines.

The principal problem particularly with the Chinese vaccines is the lack of transparency – its weak adherence to reporting standards set by the World Health Organization for independent peer review for drug safety and efficacy.

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So those who want the Western vaccines have another half year of waiting.

That’s a long wait especially for those whose livelihoods continue to be battered by pandemic restrictions. Many more businesses will fold up and jobs lost before the US and UK vaccines reach our shores. We could see a spike in cases of depression or, worse, suicide.

Our overseas Filipino workers in Singapore are luckier – they will get free Pfizer shots together with all citizens of the city-state beginning January.

Since we still have a long wait ahead, we should ramp up our testing capabilities. But we can’t even effectively enforce price caps on the “gold standard” swab tests. The DOH is also taking its sweet time in vetting the saliva test kits procured about four months ago by the Philippine Red Cross. Maybe the government simply doesn’t like PRC chairman Richard Gordon. But businessmen are also trying to bring in the saliva tests, which could revive the travel industry.

Now an Australian company has produced a rapid antigen test that people can administer by themselves at home. The over-the-counter Ellume COVID test, with 96 percent accuracy and costing about P1,000, has been approved for use in the US by its Food and Drug Administration. Approval by the US FDA should make it faster to bring the tests here.

No funds for procurement? Maybe we can use the funds that Locsin mentioned in his tweet, promised by the World Bank and Asian Development Bank for COVID vaccine procurement.

Unless someone drops the ball again.

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