Whatever is available

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - March 3, 2021 - 12:00am

With a head start of about a week or two, all those 600,000 doses of the donated Sinovac jab, CoronaVac, can be used up by the time (or if ever) non-Chinese vaccines under the COVAX Facility arrive.

Since the government is ordering a million doses of CoronaVac for delivery this month, those expecting the AstraZeneca, Moderna and Pfizer shots under COVAX may have to wait for April or May.

A member of the Technical Working Group assessing vaccines says the government is ordering 20 million doses of CoronaVac. Just to make sure Pinoys won’t be choosy and will have to settle for whatever’s available, and all those 20 million doses will be administered, we might have to wait until the next Lunar New Year (Tiger year 2022) before non-Chinese vaccines arrive.

This was the joke among those frustrated over the delay in the arrival of Western vaccines as the government finally rolled out the COVID inoculation program last Monday, using the jab that the Duterte administration had always preferred – anything made in China.

Part 2 of the joke is that with economic reopening, even non-VIPs might find it easy to smuggle into their country their vaccine of choice.

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The one million Sinovac doses are no longer free, so there will be even greater pressure to ensure that no vaccine is wasted.

Vaccine czar Carlito Galvez said P700 million has been set aside for the procurement. It isn’t clear if he was referring to the one million CoronaVac jabs alone. If he was, that’s P700 per dose, which is higher than the P500 no-profit, no-loss price quoted by Britain’s Oxford / AstraZeneca for its jab.

Now that we’re ordering a million doses, will the veil of secrecy be lifted and Filipino taxpayers finally find out how much each CoronaVac dose will cost? Is Sinovac, a private company with bribery issues right in its home turf, also offering a no-profit, no-loss price to the Philippines?

Dr. Edsel Salvana, who leads the Technical Advisory Group for the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases, told us on One News’ “The Chiefs” Monday night that the Philippines will be ordering 20 million Sinovac doses for the inoculation program.

If the government intends to use up those 20 million doses first, with the warning to Pinoys about the perils of being choosy, the Western vaccines will likely arrive in the fourth quarter yet, or perhaps in time for the official start of the 2022 election campaign.

“Official” must be emphasized, since in the middle of this once-in-a-century crisis, the campaign has already started for several shameless kapalmuks. But this is another story.

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As of March 1, the World Health Organization had finalized its approval for emergency use listing in this pandemic of only three vaccines: those produced by Pfizer, AstraZeneca made by South Korea’s SK BIO, and Covishield of the Serum Institute of India, which is also producing AstraZeneca shots for the British mother firm. EUL is expected this month for the jabs of Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and China’s Sinopharm. As for Sinovac, the WHO is still waiting for additional data on CoronaVac and the assessment status is a blank.

Yet Sinovac hurdled our vaccine reviewers. And thanks to the procurement ball being dropped over and over, the government has kicked off the COVID inoculation program with its vaccine of choice – a jab made in China.

Those in charge stress that the problem with the non-Chinese vaccines is mainly the global scramble for supplies, including those under COVAX, and not pesky details such as that indemnification issue.

It’s noteworthy, though, that in picking the West African republic of Ghana as the first recipient of the shots under COVAX (600,000 Oxford / AstraZeneca doses), the WHO explained that the rollout of the vaccine facility depends on the readiness of the qualified countries to administer the jabs.

Ghana and the Ivory Coast must be the most ready; they began their inoculations with the COVAX shots last Monday, using AstraZeneca vaccines produced by the Serum Institute of India.

In our part of the planet, Cambodia became the first recipient last night of 324,000 AstraZeneca doses under COVAX. Is Cambodia better prepared than us?

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Salvana is the director of the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at the National Institutes of Health at the University of the Philippines – Manila. Seeing him getting the CoronaVac shot last Monday together with the head of the UP-Philippine General Hospital, Dr. Gerardo Legaspi, must have helped minimize vaccine hesitancy, especially among health care workers who were (and still are) expecting the vaccines approved by stringent regulatory authorities and the WHO.

The best way to dispel doubts about China-made vaccines, however, would be a peer-reviewed assessment like the one received by Russia’s Sputnik V, and a green light for emergency use from the WHO. CoronaVac still has neither.

If Beijing wants to establish the credentials of its pharmaceutical industry, it must subject the products that it wants to distribute worldwide to peer-respected global scrutiny. It can’t go about this in the same way it is behaving in the South China Sea: ignoring global rules and doing whatever it wants, unchallenged by its coopted vassals, until its actions become a fait accompli.

After undergoing global review, who knows, the jabs of Sinovac and Sinopharm might even emerge as the world’s best vaccines against COVID. As I have previously written, I pay good money for Chinese medicine.

At this point, however, Filipinos who are accepting the Sinovac shot are mainly making a leap of faith, believing in the argument that in an emergency, the best vaccine is the one that’s available.

That argument was reiterated recently by Dr. Anthony Fauci, America’s top infectious disease expert. But he was referring to the three vaccines now approved for emergency use in the United States: Pfizer, Moderna and the single-dose Janssen jab of Johnson & Johnson.

Fauci himself took the Moderna jab. The US is still assessing the UK’s AstraZeneca vaccine, despite the WHO’s assessment that it works against the COVID variants.

If Duterte wants a vaccine from a country he likes, why doesn’t the FDA speed up its assessment of Sputnik V, developed by Russia’s Gamaleya Center, whose high efficacy was confirmed in a peer-reviewed study published in the medical journal The Lancet?

Filipinos deserve better, and our health frontliners deserve only the best vaccine.

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