SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - February 24, 2021 - 12:00am

Eat your heart out, Philippines… Afghanistan, which continues to be rocked by bombings, kicked off yesterday its COVID vaccination program, using the UK’s Oxford /AstraZeneca jabs.

The vaccination was jumpstarted by a donation of 500,000 doses from India, which also provided 1.5 million Covishield jabs that allowed strife-torn Myanmar to roll out its COVID inoculation campaign on Jan. 27.

India also donated two million doses of its Covishield vaccine to Bangladesh, which rolled out its campaign on Feb. 7. Bangladesh has ordered 30 million more of the Covishield shots from vaccine maker Serum Institute of India, which is producing the AstraZeneca jabs for the British pharma.

Nepal began its vaccination drive on Jan. 27 with an Indian donation of a million AstraZeneca shots. Sri Lanka, meanwhile, kicked off its COVID vaccination on Jan. 29, also with 500,000 AstraZeneca jabs donated by India.

Maybe we should be looking at another country for vaccine donations.

Uncle Sam had facilitated the Philippines’ procurement of 10 million Pfizer doses, for delivery last January, but we all know what happened to that ball. The 10 million instead went to the region’s perennial achiever Singapore, which kicked off its vaccination program on Jan. 8.

Meanwhile, Uncle Xi, as narrated by his Philippine counterpart, promised to provide China-made vaccines to Filipinos – but only after the Chinese have had their jabs. Excluding minors who are not eligible for COVID shots, that’s about a billion people or two billion doses.

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Still, it looks like COVID vaccines made in China, after all, will be the first to become legally available in our country.

“Legal” must be stressed because the Chinese-made Sinopharm shots self-administered (allegedly) by members of the Presidential Security Group (PSG) last September were smuggled into the country and so are classified as contraband. We will have to wait until the change of leadership to see if the smugglers will be identified and face penalties.

Meanwhile, the PSG has received a one-time compassionate use permit from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to obtain 10,000 doses of Sinopharm vaccines, for PSG members and their families.

Beijing is donating up to 600,000 doses of CoronaVac, the vaccine developed by private Chinese pharma Sinovac, to the Philippine government. Last Monday, Sinovac secured its EUA from our FDA.

As committed by Beijing, the donated vaccines can be in the Philippines within three to five days of EUA approval. Too late for the original target date of Feb. 23. Still, Malacañang is hoping that vaccination, even if acutely limited, can finally get underway this week.

Beijing donated 600,000 Sinopharm shots last Feb. 7 to Cambodia, which launched its vaccination three days later.

As expected, Filipinos are getting antsy and impatient for the vaccines, as we see inoculations getting underway around the world and Pinoys overseas getting their shots.

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It’s cold comfort to hear the World Health Organization (WHO) saying that the delayed vaccine rollout is not unique to the Philippines.

As of yesterday, the CNN health tracker showed that 97 countries and territories so far have administered over 208 million COVID vaccine doses. That’s an average of 4.6 million doses per day since the first dose of a fully tested vaccine – the one developed by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech – was administered in the United Kingdom on Dec. 14, 2020.

Small, wealthy countries, not surprisingly, are ahead of the pack: Israel has administered nearly 7.4 million doses – about 85 per 100 people – within 65 days of its rollout.

The British territory of Gibraltar is at the top of the list, but it’s tiny: the 29,334 doses administered so far over 43 days account for 87 people per 100.  As of 2019, Gibraltar had a population of 33,701. The UK has included in its vaccination its island territories.

With the economic conflagration still raging, and analysts saying the Philippines will have the slowest recovery in the region because of the high COVID cases and slow vaccination rollout, Filipinos are becoming restive. As investment analysts have pointed out, even if all businesses and economic sectors are reopened, consumer confidence will remain low until vaccination starts.

Once the inoculation with CoronaVac finally gets underway, the government should hope there won’t be a long lull before the next vaccines are rolled out. And it should hope these will be the Pfizer and AstraZeneca shots under the COVAX Facility of the WHO, which our health frontliners are expecting.

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The FDA said frontliners won’t be first in line for the CoronaVac jabs, contrary to the priorities in the phased program drawn up by the government.

Instead of health frontliners, Malacañang said the vaccines would go to members of the military and police, plus indigents and low-income workers with high exposure to the public – perhaps market vendors and tricycle drivers.

Not that health frontliners are raring to get China-made vaccines. The speculation in fact is that the health workers were not included among the Sinovac recipients because of previous reports of high vaccine hesitancy among health professionals toward jabs made in China.

The FDA has an explanation for the amendment of prioritization. Sinovac clinical trials in Brazil involved mostly health frontliners, while those in countries such as Indonesia had ordinary civilians with lower risk of COVID exposure.

CoronaVac showed an efficacy rate of only 50.4 percent in Brazil. In Indonesia – the first country outside China to approve CoronaVac – the shot showed 65.3 percent interim efficacy. In Turkey, it was a high 91.25 percent, but this was based on preliminary analysis of only 29 cases.

With the low efficacy for people with high exposure risk, the vaccine will therefore not be given to health frontliners. This was also the explanation given to us by Dr. Rontgene Solante, an infectious disease specialist of the San Lazaro Hospital in Manila, last Monday night on OneNews’ “The Chiefs.”

But surely the Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Russia’s Sputnik V vaccines were also tested on different sectors. Why are their efficacy rates relatively stable?

As of yesterday, according to WHO country representative Rabindra Abeyasinghe, the efficacy rate of CoronaVac was still being evaluated by reliable authorities.

In the meantime, soldiers and cops are already preparing to get their CoronaVac shot in the arm. The rest of us are waiting for our vaccines… maybe for a miracle.

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