Waiting for relief

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - January 27, 2021 - 12:00am

America, home to four of the biggest producers of the COVID vaccine (Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and Novavax), aims to administer the first dose of the shots to 100 million people in 100 days.

That’s over three months – too slow for some quarters in the United States, who want the number increased to two million people per day.

In the United Kingdom, where a more infectious variant of the COVID virus is now rampaging, people are also complaining about the government’s decision to space the two Pfizer doses by up to 12 weeks, from the recommended three weeks. The longer spacing is meant to provide the first dose quickly to more people. Experts say the Pfizer shot provides 52.4 percent immunity after the first dose and 89 percent from days 15 to 21. Full immunity is achieved as early as seven days after the second dose.

The UK is the home country of AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, producer of the COVID vaccine that most of the local government units and private companies in the Philippines are procuring on their own.

The shot being developed by Johnson & Johnson’s company in Belgium, Janssen, looks more attractive in terms of logistics, since it requires only one dose and does not need the extreme cold storage of the Pfizer jab. But the Janssen vaccine still doesn’t have emergency use authorization from any stringent regulatory authority.

Still, since we’re already far down the line for the other Western vaccines, we should already make reservations for the Janssen shot.

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Barring any further dropping of the ball by our national government, it might achieve its target of vaccinating 60 to 70 percent of the population – the figure cited for attaining herd immunity – only by yearend.

Can businesses endure 11 more months of low or zero earnings? Under the best-case scenario, vaccination will be underway in earnest between the third and fourth quarters, when consumption normally begins picking up for the Christmas season. But with livelihoods lost and purchasing power much diminished, holiday consumption will likely be tepid.

Economic analysts from multilateral organizations and private companies say our country will post the slowest recovery from the pandemic in our region, because of the slow vaccination rollout and the extent of COVID infection despite imposing the world’s longest continuous lockdowns.

And now here comes the UK variant, B117, spreading rapidly in Bontoc town. Already B117 has spoiled the prospect of increased foot traffic in malls and more restaurant dine-ins, with the revocation of the order allowing children aged 10 to 14 outdoors.

In countries where the vaccines are already available, health authorities are scrambling to keep the inoculation program one step ahead of the spread of B117 and possibly the highly infectious mutant coronavirus from South Africa, which is said to be more virulent than B117 and the original SARS-CoV-2.

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In our case, since our vaccination program remains stuck in the negotiation and bickering stage, we should at least be ramping up our testing and contact tracing capability.

The reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction swab test is still too expensive for ordinary Filipinos, and waiting longer than a day for the RT-PCR result heightens the risk of transmission.

After an eternity, the Department of Health has finally given the green light to the saliva test. It is less invasive – you spit into a vial instead of getting your throat and nasal passage poked and swabbed.

Dr. Michael Tee, lead researcher of the Philippine Red Cross for the saliva test, told us on “The Chiefs” the other night on OneNews / TV5 that unlike the swab test, the saliva test does not require cold chain handling. The saliva is in fact heated for the testing. Only the PRC has been allowed to test the saliva samples in its laboratories.

But this is not the game changer test that I’ve been gushing about. The one developed in Israel, reported to be 95 percent accurate, has a production cost of just 25 US centavos. It does not require a molecular laboratory to determine the presence of the virus; all it needs is a small spectral device that you can put on a table, costing about $200. You stick the container with the saliva specimen into this device, and you get the results in a second, like a pregnancy test.

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Tee and Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire told us that only the mode of collecting specimens for testing has changed – through spit rather than a nasal and throat swab.

The PRC saliva test costs P2,000 – about half the commercial cost of the swab test, but nowhere close to 25 US cents (about P12.50). The wait for results for the PRC test can be as short as three hours, but with long queues at the molecular laboratories, releasing the results could take a few days.

Maybe the PRC and the government want to continue using the molecular laboratories, which several local government units have also invested in for their constituents’ use, rather than the inexpensive spectral devices – the equivalent of an idiot box for coronavirus testing. Japan uses a similar system at its airports.

This month an Israeli startup is reportedly set to seek regulatory approval for a COVID breath test with 98 percent accuracy, with the results available within seconds, as shown in its clinical trials.

Perhaps the private sector can initiate the procurement of the cheaper, faster and no less accurate saliva test that could really serve as a game changer in economic revival in the absence of a COVID vaccine. Better yet, why doesn’t the government itself procure the much cheaper saliva testing kits, if it wants to boost economic revival? As long as the testing is conducted by authorized health personnel rather than DIY, it should be acceptable.

Considering our resources, we’re told that our vaccination target is 100,000 to 200,000 people a day, to inoculate 70 million people for herd immunity. That’s 350 days – 15 days short of an entire year – and the vaccination kickoff is still at least two months away.

With the slow vaccination rollout, we need movement in other areas to boost consumer confidence and revive the economy.

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