Vaccine security

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

It was meant to be good news when President Rodrigo Duterte wanted to share about our country getting more vaccine donations from China. President Duterte revealed he was told by ambassador Huang Xilian that there would be another delivery of 400,000 vaccine doses to the Philippines. This would raise Beijing’s total donation to a million doses.

The President revealed this a few days after he personally led last Sunday the reception in Manila marking the arrival of 600,000 doses of donated Coronavax flown all the way from Beijing via Chinese military cargo plane Y-20 Transporter. Thus, Coronavax doses, produced by Sinovac Biotech of China, were the first vaccines to arrive here.

Certainly, these would literally be a million shots in the arm of our government’s bid to procure vaccines to stop the continuing spread of the deadly 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in the Philippines. It was not clear though what particular vaccine brand in the next batch would be donated by Beijing.

There are at least two other anti-COVID vaccine brands from China that have applied for emergency use authorization (EUA) and to conduct clinical trials here. These are, Sinopharm and Clover Biopharmaceuticals, respectively.

Both applications, however, are still being processed by our own Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The 75-year-old President Duterte has consistently echoed in public his willingness to get China-made vaccines.

In fact, President Duterte was even proud to tell the Filipino nation that he got the personal assurances from President Xi Jinping of China that the Philippines will be among those that Beijing will immediately supply with anti-COVID vaccines once successfully developed.

The President’s faith in the China-made vaccines got bolstered on its efficacy and safety after his close-in escorts from the Presidential Security Group (PSG) had anti-COVID shots late last year. In fact, it was the President himself who spilled the beans on the clandestine vaccinations undertaken by the PSG. The President had a slip of the tongue at the emergency meeting of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) held a few days after last Christmas at Malacañang.

This was following the outbreak of the COVID-19 variant from the United Kingdom (UK) that is more a transmissible mutation of the deadly contagion. It was in that meeting that the Chief Executive called the attention of FDA director-general Dr. Eric Domingo on why it was taking them long to evaluate the EUA applications. Yet, the President casually cited, his PSG got already their anti-COVID shots.

Malacañang tried to downplay the implications that the PSG had availed of “smuggled” anti-COVID vaccines. It was only late last month when the FDA finally gave authorization to the PSG upon the latter’s request to administer vaccines from Sinopharm for “compassionate use” only. Domingo, however, hastily clarified this does not exculpate the PSG if proven they indeed got anti-COVID vaccine shots that did not have an EUA yet from the FDA.

This got credence after erstwhile “special envoy” to China, veteran journalist Ramon Tulfo admitted two weeks ago in his The Manila Times column that he, too, got Sinopharm anti-COVID jab. According to the same public “confessions” of Tulfo, he did it while trying to negotiate as local distributor for Sinopharm in the Philippines. Tulfo added he told President Duterte all about these in a private visit at Malacañang late last year.

We heard loud whispers though emanating from Chinatown in Binondo that the Philippines could have actually gotten “4 million doses” of anti-COVID vaccines and delivered as early as October last year. However, intervening events obviously botched it.

This was after President Duterte made a speech before a virtual conference of the United Nations General Assembly held in New York in October last year. Speaking in that global forum, President Duterte renewed his appeals for “universal access” of anti-COVID vaccines to low-income countries like the Philippines after richer countries cornered the vaccines so far produced and pre-paid already their bulk orders.

It was also in the same speech when President Duterte reopened old wounds with Beijing over the contested South China Sea dispute by reiterating the Philippine victory at The Hague ruling in favor of our country’s claims in West Philippine Sea. This indeed raised the hackles of Uncle Xi, according to our talking birds from Binondo Chinatown.

Then, we started seeing our neighboring countries from the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) getting already their anti-COVID vaccines supply, one after the other, either purchased from or mostly donated by China. So, out of the ten-member states of the ASEAN, the Philippines was the last to get its Uncle Xi’s donated vaccines. We rolled out our vaccination program only last Monday, or the next day the Sinovac doses arrived here. But it was blamed to our FDA’s delayed issuance of EUA for Sinovac.

Last Thursday night, 525,600 doses of Oxford University-developed vaccines from AstraZeneca were flown from Belgium and delivered in Manila. Like he did for the donated Sinovac, President Duterte also led the reception for the AstraZeneca doses donated by several European Union (EU) member-states under the COVAX Facility of the World Health Organization (WHO).

The Philippines is among the low-income COVID-impacted countries as designated beneficiaries under the COVAX Facility. WHO Country Representative Rabindra Abeyasinghe disclosed, the Philippines stands to receive around 4.5 million doses more of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccines until May this year from the COVAX Facility. That is, if there will be no more complications with President Duterte’s EU-politics.

Around the same months, vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are slated to be deployed to the Philippines from the United States (US). This comes as President Duterte is obviously playing his “VFA” card anew with the US, to extend or not the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).

This is our vaccine security, Philippine style.

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