FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - January 5, 2021 - 12:00am

On the matter of vaccines, we will have to find our place in the queue. Through much of this year, demand will be far greater than supply.

So much political noise was made in the closing days of 2020 about someone “dropping the ball” regarding our purchase of a small quantity of the Pfizer vaccine. It turned out the deal was largely speculative and our procurement laws prohibit prepayment for anything.

Even if we successfully placed an order for that vaccine, the number of doses involved in the potential deal was too small to alter the reproduction rates of the virus. We did not have the ultra cold chain needed to store and distribute this particular vaccine. The vaccination program would have cost us more than the vaccine itself.

Meanwhile, new vaccines better suited to our logistics system have come into the pipeline. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was recently given emergency use authorization by the UK. It is the cheapest vaccine in the market and its manufacturers have committed to make no profit from this product. A dose will be cheaper than a cup of ridiculously priced coffee from the more popular chains.

Last week, India gave emergency use authorization for the AstraZeneca vaccine and Covaxin, a variety domestically produced by Bharat Biotech. The AstraZeneca to be used to vaccinate hundreds of millions of Indian citizens are locally produced as well. The World Health Organization has not reviewed the test results for the Bahrat Biotech product.

Several Latin American countries have begun administering the Russian-produced Sputnik variant.  Our neighbor, Indonesia, began administering Chinese-made vaccines – the same variant the Presidential Security Group is reported to have “self-administered” to some of its soldiers.

Indonesia, like India, has the manufacturing capacity to produce domestically the vaccines they need. We do not have that manufacturing capacity. We will have to import all the vaccines we need, given the weakness of our biotechnology capacity.

Earlier last year, as infections began spreading here, President Duterte announced his offer of a P30-million reward to any Filipino scientist who could develop a local vaccine. That was a futile offer. We did not have the laboratories and molecular biologists to achieve that. Some of our best molecular biologists work in laboratories abroad.

Producing the needed vaccines, in the breakneck speed we saw, required that we invested billions in building our biotechnology capacity. We have not made those investments. Imagine all the congressional investigations that might have been called if we decided, years ago, to invest billions in a “useless” enterprise.

All we have at the moment is the genome research institute at the UP. Even that could not be described as a fully developed facility. When tasked with checking the presence of the highly transmissible variant of the virus that began proliferating in London, the scientists at the genome institute pleaded they be given several weeks to do the job.

Meanwhile, even as the large tests are being conducted on vaccine variants, several laboratories abroad are in the process of developing medicines that could arrest infections or mitigate their effects on patients. Over the next few weeks and months, we will hear a lot more about these treatments.

Towards the end of the first quarter, we will have a broad range of options open to us. These include cheaper vaccines that do not require ultra cold storage. Our FDA should also be able to authorize new medicines coming into the market.

What we need is patience. After ten months of restrictions, it is understandable that our people are eager to go out and circulate as they did before. Even if vaccine doses were available today, however, the protocols will have to remain in place. In most vaccines available, the immunity does not kick in instantaneously. We will have to wait.

We have to arrive at a clear policy governing the dissemination of the vaccines when they do become available. Several local governments have set aside money to buy the vaccines directly and administer them to their constituents. They have begun building a list of people wanting the vaccines.

A consortium of large corporations has put together a fund to purchase vaccines for their workers. The fund amounts to billions. The vaccines they purchase will be distributed according to the needs of the private sector and not necessarily according to government’s priority list.

So far, the few countries that have begun administering the vaccine have done so entirely on their governments’ terms. The most efficient so far has been Israel. By end-December, the Israeli government has vaccinated 12 percent of the population. The country will likely achieve herd immunity even before our own vaccination program begins.

The willingness and capacity of local governments and private corporations to purchase vaccines on their own and design their own vaccination programs is unique. All active vaccination programs so far have been strictly government controlled.

The way things are going in the country, it is likely we will have parallel vaccination programs going on: the national government program, the local government program and the private sector program. We need a clear policy that will govern what is turning out to be a free market vaccination process.

Several politicians and a handful of presidential security guards are acknowledged to have received shots. That is a warning of what could happen. Apart from parallel vaccination programs, we could see rampant smuggling of vaccines.

We have an impatient people and a market willing to pay for vaccination as soon as possible. Things could get out of control.

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