SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - January 8, 2021 - 12:00am

Is it here?

It’s possible, says a member of the OCTA Research team, that the more infectious variant of COVID-19 is already in the Philippines.

Molecular biologist Father Nicanor Austriaco raises this possibility even as the Philippine Genome Center has reported that its sequencing of 305 positive samples from November to December did not turn up the variant of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID.

But because a Filipina working as a household helper in Hong Kong tested positive for the variant upon arrival in the Chinese administrative region on a flight from Manila, Father Nic says we cannot rule out the possibility that she was already infected when she flew out on Dec. 22.

The 30-year-old woman reportedly submitted a negative COVID test result before the flight. It’s unclear if she was tested at the NAIA itself and what type of test it was, or if she simply presented a document – something which, as we know from recent developments, can be forged and bought in the printing shops along C.M. Recto Avenue in Manila.

Father Nic says the sampling of the Philippine Genome Center is too small to conclude that the B117, the SARS-CoV-2 variant from the UK, or the 501Y.V2 mutant detected in South Africa has not reached the Philippines. B117, for example, was confirmed in Singapore on Dec. 8, two days after the infected person arrived from the UK. This was before the Philippine travel ban on countries where the variant has been reported took effect on Dec. 30.

To minimize the scare, Father Nic says vaccines developed for COVID also work on the variant, although with slightly lower efficacy. The measles virus, he explains, has numerous variants, but the vaccine for the disease works on all mutants.

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Perhaps the possible presence of the variant, which epidemiologists say is not deadlier than the original, will persuade more Filipinos to have themselves inoculated against COVID.

OCTA Research conducted a non-commissioned survey from Dec. 9 to 13, which showed that only 25 percent of residents in Metro Manila, epicenter of the pandemic in the country, wanted to be vaccinated.

Unlike the informal survey in Navotas involving 6,000 residents, however, OCTA did not ask for the reason. Father Nic said though that in his talks with people at the University of Santo Tomas, where he is a visiting professor of  biology, he was told that their attitudes toward vaccination depended not on the brand but on the country of origin.

Father Nic said the resistance was not to vaccination per se, but to vaccines specifically from China. This is similar to the results of the  Navotas survey: the vaccine made by China’s state-owned Sinopharm came out as the last preference.

As I have written, the Chinese vaccines could actually be effective. But public acceptance of vaccination is heavily influenced by perceptions. We know this from the hysteria over Dengvaxia, the world’s first dengue vaccine made by Sanofi Pasteur, the French pharmaceutical giant named after French microbiologist Louis Pasteur, who is credited with discovering the principles of vaccination and pasteurization.

Right now, the secrecy surrounding China’s handling of the COVID outbreak and its vaccine development has not inspired confidence in its jabs.

In our country, this problem has been aggravated by the clandestine vaccination of members of the Presidential Security Group with what President Duterte said was the Sinopharm shot, followed by his order to the PSG to observe omerta.

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We still don’t know who among the Cabinet members got the Sinopharm shot, as Duterte also revealed when he blabbed about soldiers’ vaccination. Omerta, the code of silence in the Italian mafia, is prized in this administration.

We can be sure it’s not the rare physician in the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III.

Health Undersecretary Eric Domingo, director of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), was present at the IATF meeting when Duterte disclosed the soldiers’ vaccination.

“I was shocked,” Domingo told us Wednesday night on OneNews / TV5’s “The Chiefs.” He said he looked at Duque to ask if the health chief knew about it. Duque was just as surprised and out of the loop.

Domingo told us that he has written to the PSG, seeking details about the vaccination, in line with the FDA’s mandate to safeguard public health. So far, he says, there has been no answer. The letter was addressed to PSG chief Brig. Gen. Jesus Durante III, who being a bemedaled Scout Ranger should put a premium on honor. Where’s the honor in lying or omerta?

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All these controversies do not bode well for the country’s vaccination program, which takes on more urgency if the more infectious mutant B117 or 501Y.V2 reaches our shores.

Without vaccination, we can’t achieve herd immunity, which is indispensable for economic recovery.

Already, the international investment houses and multilateral organizations are projecting that the Philippines will be the last in Asia-Pacific to recover from the pandemic. They base their projections on the extent of COVID infection and the government’s response, including the slow vaccination.

In the best case scenario, with emergency use authorization from the FDA, Domingo sees vaccination starting in March, among the priority sectors – the frontliners and the elderly.

The Western vaccines, however, are expected to arrive no earlier than July. By that time, vaccination would likely be over in wealthy countries with small populations such as Singapore, Israel and Iceland. As of early January, vaccination with the Western shots had started in about 50 countries.

Faced with this continuing crisis, the administration’s political allies are working urgently on… Charter change.

The coronavirus mutants may slip through our borders. As other countries begin their COVID vaccination, we should brace for many more months of restrictions, more illness and death, more livelihood losses and deeper suffering.

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