Wednesday, 25 Nov 2020

Vaccine on the horizon?: Inquirer

MANILA (PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) – The Duterte administration has pinned the salvation and recovery of the country from the devastating public health and economic crises caused by the Covid-19 pandemic squarely on a vaccine.

That means it should assign top priority for the purchase and distribution of the critical medicine in next year’s budget.

Has it? For now, only P18 billion ($501 million) has been set aside in the 2021 spending bill for the mass Covid-19 vaccination program.

It is already a significant increase from the original proposal of a mere P2.5 billion, but still far short of the minimum P100 billion that Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto said was required to inoculate at least 54 million Filipinos.

Mr Recto stressed during the plenary debates on the 2021 budget that to achieve so-called herd immunity to protect the country against Covid-19, at least 60 per cent of Filipinos, or 60 million, have to be vaccinated.

Take away young Filipinos who are supposed to be “less susceptible” to Covid-19, and that still leaves a whopping 54 million Filipinos needing two doses of the vaccine projected to cost a minimum of P1,000 each.

“That’s a huge requirement of P108 billion and counting. Shouldn’t we provide the appropriation of at least P100 billion?” Mr Recto asked.

The pressing need to cast that appropriation in stone, so to speak, cannot be overstated, as the much-awaited vaccine for the virus that has infected over 410,000 Filipinos and killed nearly 8,000 (globally, 55.3 million infections, 1.33 million deaths) may just be on the horizon.

Last week, American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced that its candidate vaccine developed by its partner BioNTech of Germany was 90 per cent effective in preventing infection in volunteers.

If verified, that would make it the world’s first effective Covid-19 vaccine.

Days later, American biotech company Moderna announced even better news: that it had developed an experimental Covid-19 vaccine nearly 95 per cent effective in preventing illness, including severe cases.

That the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have reached late-stage trials with a high level of effectivity boosted the prospect that two Covid-19 vaccines could become available, albeit on a limited basis, by the end of the year, with ramped-up vaccine production expected by the middle of next year.

That is, if the vaccines pass more stringent tests to ensure their safety for mass use.

Indeed, the safety of the two vaccines is not yet guaranteed, as the results have not yet been subjected to peer review or evaluation by outside experts, or validated by the US Food and Drug Administration.

This means the preliminary results, no matter how tantalising, cannot yet be considered conclusive as significant changes can still happen along the way.

Phase 3 or late-stage trials in Brazil of the China-made Sinovac Biotech Covid-19 vaccine, for instance, were halted last week following a “serious adverse event” involving a volunteer recipient.

Despite the setback, the Chinese company said it was standing by the safety and efficacy of its own Covid-19 vaccine.

As the race to roll out a safe and effective vaccine intensifies, is the Duterte administration doing enough planning and preparation to make sure the local infrastructure is ready for the immense storage and distribution requirements for the vaccine, and that it has the means to purchase the drug to ensure that the majority, if not the entire Filipino population, will get it?

Mr Recto noted the steep cost of logistics that could be “easily twice more” than the actual price of the vaccine, considering the archipelagic nature of the Philippines plus the sheer number of people that need to be vaccinated: “To inoculate 50 million people (in a year) you need to inoculate 150,000 a day. It’s a huge logistical requirement.”

Plus, the two most promising vaccines require sub-zero temperatures for proper transportation and storage in a tropical country that sorely lacks cold chain infrastructure.

President Duterte has entrusted the critical task of procuring and distributing the vaccine to “vaccine czar” Carlito Galvez Jr, also the chief implementer of the government’s National Task Force Against Covid-19.

Mr Galvez recently presented to the President the Philippine National Vaccine Roadmap and expressed optimism that the bulk of the Covid-19 vaccine may arrive in the country between late 2021 and early 2022.

The plan will not have a chance of being translated into meaningful action, however, if the budget for it is manifestly inadequate.

Absent enough funding that would ensure sufficient mass vaccination (while billions are given to other less urgent concerns), the administration’s stated objective for its record-high P4.5 trillion budget for 2021 -“containing the spread and mitigating the effects of the virus while restarting the economy to help the nation reset, rebound and recover from the crisis” – will ring hollow.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 24 news media organisations.

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