International cooperation and solidarity

DIPLOMATIC POUCH - Alain Gaschen - The Philippine Star

This past year has reminded me that solidarity exists in various forms. Early on, donation drives organized by all sectors of society helped alleviate the shock lockdowns brought upon the population. Recently, the rise of community pantries also served as a reflection of the “bayanihan” spirit that Filipinos have, and even pride themselves in, something I find similar to how the Swiss value grass-roots endeavors and solidarity as well.

This spirit of solidarity, coupled with our traditional commitment to multilateralism, is what guides Switzerland in its contribution to the global vaccine effort. The pandemic will not end until each and every single country around the world can contain the virus not just through equitable access to vaccines, but also to COVID-19 diagnostics and treatments. Or, as Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO, has put it: “No one is safe until everyone is safe.”

As part of its commitment to multilateralism and global solidarity, Switzerland is an active member and an important donor of the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A) initiative, contributing CHF300 million or P15.9 billion to the four pillars – vaccines, therapies, diagnostics, and health systems strengthening – of the initiative. ACT-A brings together public and private sector entities and foundations. The number of actors, organizations and coalitions involved just proves how this once in a lifetime pandemic has brought us all closer, even as we are all far apart.

Through its international cooperation, Switzerland is sharing its comparative advantage: the International Geneva, host to many leading actors in global health, or the fact that Switzerland boasts a network of research institutes and private firms – such as pharmaceutical companies – engaged in medical R&D. These companies exemplify our Swiss values in different ways in response to the global pandemic.

For example, to help expand the country’s COVID-19 testing capacity at the onset of the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), Novartis donated P19.3M to the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) Medical Foundation for the purchase of locally produced COVID-19 test kits. The company has also reiterated its commitment to ensure the sustained supply of essential life-saving medicines to patients.

To achieve this, Novartis helps Pfizer and BioNtech manufacture its COVID-19 vaccine and will also be working with Roche, another leading Swiss company in the field of pharmaceuticals, to manufacture Tocilizumab (Actemra), a drug indicated for rheumatoid and other forms of arthritis but that has been granted special authorization for treatment of serious cases of COVID-19 in several countries. Roche currently produces drugs that have a huge potential in reducing the risks of COVID-19 linked to pneumonia and is currently developing a new anti-viral drug as well as an antibody cocktail that can help prevent the onset of severe COVID-19 and reduce transmission. Roche Diagnostics has also helped strengthen the COVID-19 testing capacity by providing tests in the country.

Another major Swiss-rooted pharmaceutical company, Zuellig Pharma, is also playing a key role in the international fight against the virus by supplying the Moderna vaccine in Southeast Asia, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Zuellig has been instrumental in the Philippines in ensuring availability of health care products nationwide and is set to play a key role in the vaccine rollout as a partner of the government and the private sector.

Aside from COVID-19, Swiss companies have also given their support to other major health issues in the country. Medgate, for example, provides state-of-the-art telemedicine solutions, and Sandoz, which donated a year’s supply of medicines to the East Avenue Medical Center and other hospitals through the Philippine Red Cross which will benefit almost 10,000 patients with infections and 6,000 patients with hypertension. In the global vaccine production, Swiss company Lonza has recently launched a new site in collaboration with Moderna to produce over 1 billion vaccines annually over a 10-year period.

As I have also previously written, I am an optimist by nature. I am thankful to hear the news that more vaccines have been delivered to the Philippines courtesy of the COVAX Facility. The latest delivery included 2 million additional doses of AstraZeneca and the initial 193,000 Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines, with more to come as the month continues. This brings the total COVAX deliveries to around 2.6 million vaccines, with the national government expecting vaccine deliveries to increase before the year ends so vaccinations may also get ramped up to around 500,000 to 1 million shots a week. The slow but steady increase in daily vaccination rates as well as the plans to create more vaccination sites is also something the Filipino people can look forward to as we continue onto the new normal.

Meanwhile, the embassy stays fully mobilized: We have for instance been working on strengthening the Philippine health care capacity through a project that assists the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and local manufacturers to explore opportunities for these local firms to diversify their production and include PPEs and sanitation products like alcohols and sanitizing gels. The program is set to officially start in the 2nd quarter of this year.

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Alain Gaschen is the Swiss Ambassador to the Philippines.

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