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Finally, vaccines

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - March 1, 2021 - 12:00am

Whew… saved by AstraZeneca?

Unfortunately, the word as of last night was that delivery of that jab, initially announced for today, is again delayed. So our health frontliners may have to accept the COVID vaccine developed by China’s Sinovac Biotech.

On the eve of the arrival of the 600,000 CoronaVac doses donated to the Philippines by China, welcomed at the NAIA yesterday by no less than President Duterte, the report was that the country’s share in the COVAX Facility initiated by the World Health Organization (WHO) would finally start arriving today. And these are the shots developed by Britain’s Oxford University and AstraZeneca. Now delivery is delayed.

Health frontliners at Ground Zero of the pandemic – the COVID referral hospitals in Metro Manila – are correct in saying that they deserve the best vaccine.

The best in terms of efficacy, as approved by the WHO and stringent regulatory authorities, is the Pfizer shot, with 95 percent efficacy, followed by US biotech firm Moderna’s jab, with 94.1 percent, and then Russia’s Sputnik V developed by its Gamaleya Center with 91.6 percent.

Oxford-AstraZeneca’s vaccine follows with 76 percent, rising to 82 percent if there’s a 12-week interval between the two doses. Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine developed by Janssen, now with emergency approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has 66 percent efficacy.

As for Sinovac, it had a 50.4 percent efficacy in Brazil, but Turkish authorities reported a 91.25 percent efficacy while the Indonesians reported 65.3 percent.

Some of our health experts have explained that the Brazil clinical trials involved mainly health frontliners with high exposure to COVID, while ordinary civilians were the main participants in the trials in Turkey and Indonesia. The experts said the Brazil trials also showed higher efficacy against moderate to severe infections.

The principal argument of those vouching for Sinovac is that in an emergency, the best vaccine is the one that’s available. As of today, there’s only one in the Philippines: Sinovac’s CoronaVac.

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It’s impressive how quickly the Philippines’ FDA can change its mind about Sinovac meeting the requirements for emergency use authorization in the Philippines. You wonder why the FDA can’t move just as quickly on the EUA application for Sputnik V, whose efficacy has been peer-reviewed.

WHO country representative Rabindra Abeyasinghe said the WHO has not yet completed its assessment of the Sinovac shot, but he noted that perhaps the Philippines’ FDA knows something the WHO doesn’t.

The FDA approval of the EUA allowed Sinovac to deliver the donation of 600,000 doses, transported on a Chinese military plane, on the last day of February. That should put an end to those nasty jokes about COVID vaccines finally reaching the Philippines on Feb. 31, or of the delivery delayed because stickers promoting Duterte’s niño bonito were still being stuck on the vaccines.

We should be grateful for the Chinese donation, although those who are not enamored with Beijing say China, being the source of this pestilence, should provide reliable vaccines for free to the entire planet.

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The government can relax quarantine restrictions all it wants. Consumer confidence and our consumption-driven economy, however, can be revived only when mass vaccination starts.

Last Saturday, for example, I cut my own hair again by nearly three inches, even if I can get a free hair trim at one of the membership shopping outlets near my home.

Since late last year I’ve been invited to lunch or dinner meetings, mostly by foreigners, but also by a smattering of Filipinos who must have a bad case of COVID cabin fever.

Despite assurances that COVID health safety protocols would be followed by the hosts, I’ve declined all the invitations, much as I want to attend. There’s only one reason: I prefer to wait for my vaccination.

Until I get my shot, I’ll worry about catching virus droplets once we sit down to a meal, take off our masks and begin talking and eating and laughing, even with seat distancing observed.

Being low on the totem pole of priorities set by the government for vaccination, I realize it could be the ’ber months before I actually get my shot, even if I have already registered with my local government for inoculation.

I’m taking these precautions, however, not just to protect myself but also persons around me with comorbidities and a high risk of infection. Being elderly, they will get their shots ahead of me – most likely Western vaccines that our city government ordered. Once this happens, I can afford to wait a bit longer for my preferred vaccine: the single-dose jab of Johnson & Johnson, so I risk anaphylaxis only once.

While quarantines, distance learning and work-from-home arrangements must be driving people stir-crazy, I’m sure my extra caution is not unusual.

Health experts will welcome such caution, but it’s bad news for economic recovery. And it illustrates the importance of speeding up mass vaccination.

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My guess is that several of the foreigners who invited me to the lunch and dinner meetings have already received their COVID shots. It’s increasingly frustrating to see them regaining some semblance of normalcy in their lives, months ahead of us.

For all of those who have lost loved ones to this disease, or who have seen their health impaired, or who have lost their livelihoods and seen their life savings go down the drain – and for all of us who have been forced into an abnormal existence for a year – we should never forget that after the longest lockdown in the world, our country has the second highest COVID infections in Southeast Asia and the deepest recession.

We are the last in the region to roll out a vaccination program. But this is not counting the actual start, which was in September last year, when members of the Presidential Security Group, reportedly together with at least one senator, Cabinet members and other children of a greater God received their China-made Sinopharm shots.

All independent analysts see our country registering the slowest recovery in the region.

The administration can spin it all it wants, but our vaccine procurement has been a series of balls being dropped. This is what happens when government positions are treated mainly as commodities for political patronage, and the principal criteria for appointment to civilian posts, even in a once-in-a-century crisis, is the readiness to jump off a window when the appointing power says so.

A large school gym near my home now bears a massive streamer declaring it as a COVID vaccination center.

All that’s missing is the vaccine.

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