FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - December 22, 2020 - 12:00am

This virus does not give up easily.

A new variant of the virus has been detected in southern England. The discovery pushed British authorities to impose the most severe lockdown measures in the area. Continental European countries have blocked incoming travel from the UK. Stock and oil prices have retreated on the news.

The mutant virus is said to be even more contagious. There is no evidence yet on whether it is more lethal. The fear, understandably, is that this virus could keep on mutating until it becomes immune to the new vaccines rapidly developed this year. There is no evidence about that either.

What a tragic irony this would be: we develop vaccines at great cost to fight the virus and the virus simply mutates to defy it.

There could be some over-reaction to the discovery of this new variant in England. Several strains of the virus have been identified over the months of this pandemic. All the identified strains so far are susceptible to the vaccines available.

If there should be any concern, it should be about the increased contagiousness of the new strains. The original strain from the Wuhan outbreak is probably the most contagious coronavirus on record. That is the reason infections spread so rapidly worldwide. The new strain found in southern England magnifies the most fearsome characteristic of this virus.

The discovery of the new strain raises the possibility the infections worldwide could outstrip whatever mitigation the new vaccines offer. The past week saw a very sharp spike in infections in North America and Europe. The holidays could accelerate the spike even more. Lockdowns have been ordered in the UK and much of continental Europe.

This is why the bad news of a new strain managed to eclipse the good news of the vaccine rollout. Administering the vaccines has proven to be a slow and tedious process. The more contagious strains of the virus could cause more outbreaks than could be managed. In Southern California, for instance, there are no more ICU beds available. This could be the story elsewhere.

The US is, by far, the worst hit country. The caseload is pushing towards 20 million. Winter has come and it promises to be a very dark one. The daily American death toll could climb up to 4,000 a day. Blame this dire situation on the incompetence and disinformation emanating from the White House. A staggering infection and death tally is certain over the next few weeks even if millions of vaccine doses are administered by the quickest means possible.

The situation is dire in the UK as well. While London and its environs are put under the strictest restrictions, a no-deal Brexit appears most likely at the end of this month. That could cause severe shortages of essentials imported from the EU.

Both Germany and France are enduring unprecedented infection rates that could negate all the hard effort put in for most of the year fighting the virus. Christmas is not going to be cheerful anywhere.

For as long as infections continue anywhere, no part of the world will be safe even as travel restrictions will likely be in place through the next year. It will take a longer while for the world to climb out of the hole this pandemic dug.

In our own case, vaccination has yet to happen. Our vaccination czar estimates administration of the vaccines could take us three to five years. Since the virus appears to mutate rather than dissipate, what this means is we will live under various forms of health protocols for years to come.

Given this realistic horizon for a vaccination program, it really matters very little if we get our first vaccine doses at the end of January instead of the end of March. Much of the world outside the richest countries will get their vaccines middle to late next year.

“Vaccine nationalism” such as the Trump administration espouses leaves out the poorer countries. Our best hope for substantial dosages of vaccine will have to be the common vaccine procurement program of the World Health Organization (WHO) supported by the World Bank.

The faux controversy over the alleged “dropping of the ball” relating to the purchase of the Pfizer vaccine seems to be a lot of wasted air. A person knowledgeable about our cold chain facilities tells me the best freezers we have in this country can only manage -54ºC. The Pfizer vaccine requires -70ºC storage facilities. Even if we got an advance delivery of this vaccine, we do not have the ability to handle it.

At any rate, our own procurement laws hamper any negotiations with the vaccine suppliers. We cannot, for instance, prepay things we buy. By the stupid laws we legislate, we always find a way to shoot ourselves in the foot.

We will probably be better off acquiring the vaccines we need though the WHO Covax program. The international organization will handle all negotiations with the suppliers, purchase in bulk and distribute according to need. The WB will pay the suppliers and we incur debt with the international financial institution.

Nothing could be more above-board than this. There will be no fake news about kickbacks such as that being peddled by the LP politicians. There will be no leakages. The acquisition will be fully transparent. We will get the vaccines we need at the lowest possible price since the WHO will be purchasing in bulk.

Next year, there will be ample supplies of better vaccines that require less logistics costs. That is a positive.

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