Take it or leave it

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - January 13, 2021 - 12:00am

Finally, a COVID vaccine.

And just as everyone expected, since it was already announced a long time ago, the first jabs – all 25 million doses – to be rolled out will be one made in China. It’s Sinovac, it will be administered for free, so take it or leave it.

The local executives who are opting to leave it, since their constituents have informed them that they won’t accept Chinese-made vaccines, will have to wait until all the 25 million doses are used up, after which Western vaccines will be allowed to be brought in.

This will be in July, since Malacañang said yesterday that only Sinovac shots will be available in the country until June.

Priority given to the Chinese jabs is seen as the reason why Malacañang and the Department of Health sat for months on that deal for the delivery this month of the 10 million doses of Pfizer vaccine.

When asked about this dropping of the ball during the Senate inquiry last Monday, Carlito Galvez, who was named vaccine czar months after the deal was worked out with Pfizer back in July through the efforts of the Department of Foreign Affairs and the US State Department, said DFA Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. was not authorized to negotiate for vaccines.

Teddyboy Locsin in fact deserves a medal for negotiating that supply deal (together with Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez) and then informing the public about the dropping of the ball. A rare Cabinet member who believes in transparency, ironically, is now the one being painted as a liar.

So there you go, take the free Sinovac jab, or sign a waiver if you refuse. Beggars can’t be choosers. Paying clients need not sign a waiver, but you’ll have to wait until July if you want the Pfizer shot. Romualdez says he’s trying to secure even a small batch for April delivery; Babe, are you authorized to do that?

We still don’t know if we should thank Beijing for donating the 25 million doses, or at least providing them at a substantial discount.

Several wealthy local government units have placed orders (with payment charged to the LGU) for vaccines made by Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) of the US and Europe, and of the UK’s AstraZeneca and Oxford University.

*      *      *

One of the excuses raised for the tepid response to the January delivery of the Pfizer vaccine is the cold chain logistics needed for its distribution.

Pfizer uses special dry ice packaging to safely transport its vaccine. Countries in the deserts of the Middle East and North Africa have had no problem with this.

To give you an idea of the proper response to this challenge, Benjamin Magalong, the can-do mayor of Baguio City, is expecting delivery from abroad soon of a refrigerator capable of the minus-70 degrees temperature required for the Pfizer jab. He says it costs only P180,000 and together with a freezer can hold the vaccines needed by the city. With an estimated population of 370,000, minus those 17 years old and below who cannot be vaccinated for COVID, the city needs over 360,000 doses for 182,000 residents.

Last week Baguio finalized a supply deal with AstraZeneca for 380,000 doses, good for 190,000 people.

Facing us on “The Chiefs” the other night on OneNews, Magalong said the city government began scouting for the refrigerator / freezer in November, upon learning of the temperature requirement for the Pfizer shots. The unit was put on a ship earlier this month and is on its way to the Philippines, he said.

“We would like to be pro-active about it,” Magalong told us, noting that the government is expected to allow LGUs only with the required cold chain logistics to opt for the Western vaccines. “We are prepared to accept Pfizer.”

Unlike some other city mayors, he says he has not yet taken even an informal survey of vaccine preferences among his constituents.

Other mayors have done this to ensure that their procurements won’t be wasted if their constituents reject the jabs.

But if the national government gives Baguio the Sinovac jabs, Magalong, who is also the country’s designated contact tracing czar, says he will accept the vaccines, since the AstraZeneca shots are expected only in the third quarter. He says he will just have to launch an information drive to overcome resistance to the Chinese vaccine.

*      *      *

The national government had initially said vaccination would start in March, using mainly the Chinese jabs.

Advancing the timetable by a month, even with the Sinovac shot not yet assessed by reputable regulators and our Food and Drug Administration (FDA), is probably meant to address Pinoys’ increasing frustration over the slow vaccine procurement.

The government can’t point to the long line of other countries waiting for their share of the Western vaccines. These are mostly the low-income states. We’re a middle-income country, and we’re seeing COVID vaccinations (with Western shots) getting underway in other middle-income states, which treated the procurement of reliable vaccines with the highest alert level, code red, emergency urgency that it deserved.

(Let me qualify that… Locsin and Romualdez did give the issue the emergency attention that it deserved. And look at the thanks they’re getting from the miffed administration.)

But don’t fret, we’re not kulelat. If it’s any consolation, folks, we were actually ahead even of Singapore, Indonesia, the US, UK and Europe. Members of the Presidential Security Group vaccinated themselves (hurray for their medical skills) way back in September, with shots made by Chinese state-owned Sinopharm.

*      *      *

We can crack jokes about our frustration, but local government executives can’t afford discontent among their constituents, with the elections fast approaching.

Their impatience is seen in the fact that more and more LGUs are negotiating directly with pharmaceutical companies, with some appealing that they be allowed to bypass national government approval for their procurements.

This sentiment was echoed by several senators at the inquiry last Monday on the vaccination program. Some senators also want private companies to be allowed to directly procure their own vaccines.

Political considerations may set back attempts to overcome Chinese vaccine hesitancy. Mayors Abby Binay of Makati and Toby Tiangco of Navotas said resistance to Chinese-made vaccines cuts across income classes among their constituents. The take it or leave it admonition won’t cut it.

What can the national government do to use up all those 25 million Sinovac shots? As in other countries, to overcome vaccine hesitancy, national leaders starting with President Duterte himself can be vaccinated in public with the Sinovac shot.

A vaccination certification may later be required for certain activities such as traveling by plane or for certain jobs. So those who can’t afford to pay for their preferred vaccine may refuse the Sinovac jab at their own risk.

Take it or leave it.

COVID-19 VACCINE
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