SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - December 21, 2020 - 12:00am

On the last Saturday before Christmas, traffic was bad in my neck of the woods, and there was heavier foot traffic at the malls.

Still, it was nowhere close to the traffic jams and pre-Christmas weekend shopping rush of the past years. I easily entered a major supermarket, and there were no long lines at the check-out counters.

The seasonal mall tiangge that used to offer clothing and accessories, toys and home-cooked food now caters to the plantitos and plantitas – with plants that I have in my garden now priced about 10 to 20 times more than when I bought them pre-pandemic.

Around the mall, shuttered shops provided sad reminders of this horrible year of death, sickness, unemployment, bankruptcy and impoverishment.

How many more months of this can be endured? This is the toll of that failure to secure delivery by January of the 10 million doses of vaccines made by Pfizer / BioNTech – the first COVID vaccine approved by US and UK regulators, with 95 percent efficacy, and with the companies capable of large-scale production.

Moderna, whose vaccine is the second to get emergency use authorization from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), does not have the massive production capability of Pfizer. But negotiations are reportedly ongoing for Philippine access to the Moderna vaccine, which has 94.5 percent efficacy and is said to be more stable than the Pfizer shot.

The 10 million doses would be good for 5 million people – not enough to meet the requirement of 50 to 70 percent population coverage for achieving herd immunity. But Dr. Anthony Leachon, who was eased out as adviser to the COVID-19 task force apparently due to his regular public critique of the effort, noted that 5 million would bring herd immunity within reach at the epicenter of the pandemic in the Philippines: the National Capital Region (latest population estimate in the NCR is 13.9 million).

Combined with granular lockdowns, the pandemic could be brought substantially under control in the region that accounts for about a third of the country’s economic output.

Now this timetable has just been pushed back by about half a year. Every month that passes for distressed enterprises is a disaster. Sen. Grace Poe had an apt description for what happened: it’s tragic and criminal.

*      *      *

The government seems to be counting on vaccines from China, which have been cleared by Chinese regulators, and which will likely breeze through our FDA. The vaccines – about 25 million doses – are expected by March. Leachon, who used to work for Pfizer, warns that if our FDA approves a vaccine that has not been passed by reliable regulators overseas, the government would bear the blame in case another Dengvaxia-type problem erupts.

Here’s a description of the global scramble for a vaccine, from National Geographic:

“The early-bird medal

“If securing a COVID-19 vaccine is like a race, the most suitable comparison may be an Olympic marathon. When a nation successfully brokers a deal with a vaccine company, its team has won a medal. The number of doses it gets signifies whether the medal is gold, silver, or bronze.

“The U.S., the European Union, and India are among the gold medal winners. They’ve secured the most hypothetical doses from the potential supplies on offer. Britain would land on the silver podium, but its expedited approval means that its medal will arrive before everyone else’s.”

With their “rolling review” of the vaccine made by US company Pfizer, UK regulators beat the US in approval and start of mass inoculation.

We could have bagged a bronze with the 10 million doses by January. Now the medal goes to Singapore, the perennial overachiever in Southeast Asia. And we have a longer wait ahead for recovery.

*      *      *

With administration officials themselves lamenting that “somebody dropped the ball” on the Pfizer vaccine, the government is now saying a deal could be signed for the shots by January. This is according to Carlito Galvez, who was designated as vaccine czar in November – about four months after Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. and Philippine Ambassador to the US Babe Romualdez began working with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for those 10 million Pfizer doses.

Obviously there’s a world of difference between an exchange of signatures and actual shipment by FedEx through Clark International Airport by January, as arranged by Locsin and Romualdez with Pompeo. Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu got his Pfizer shot Saturday; the first Pinoy living in the Philippines will get a vaccine no earlier than March, and the Pfizer jab possibly in July or August, under the now-delayed delivery timetable.

Precious time is what we lost in this deal. The government has reassured the public that negotiations are ongoing for all the vaccines we need. But this won’t make up for the months of delay.

Among the Western vaccines, the first to reach us will likely be the one imported by the private sector – an initial 2.6 million doses of the shots developed by the UK’s AstraZeneca together with the University of Oxford.

This is still about five months away. AstraZeneca still has to get emergency use authorization from UK and US regulators.

*      *      *

The first vaccine to reach our shores – like our COVID patient No. 1 – will come from China. If the shots are similar to those of Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca, a person needs two doses, administered within 21 days of each other. Full immunity is attained after 28 days – barring any Dengvaxia-type complications.

The butterfingered ball players in government describe this as just a bit of delay. We should ask the folks who have lost their jobs, shut down their businesses and are now going through their worst Christmas season what they think of this bit of delay. In that mall alone that I visited over the weekend, there would likely be a pile of slingshots for delivery to Locsin.

We’re into just the 10th month of lockdowns, and look what’s happening to physical distancing, even mask wearing. It’s as if there’s no more pandemic in some areas; cabin fever is boiling over.

Meanwhile, in the central business district of Makati yesterday, the final Sunday before Christmas, the usual crush of holiday shoppers was depressingly missing.

Even the parking lot of the San Antonio Plaza Arcade near Forbes Park was half-empty. Or maybe the households of the .001 percent now prefer to have all their groceries home-delivered.

The start of potential deliverance from this pestilence has been pushed back by several months. There is public fury percolating and could bubble up to the surface.

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