The Long View: A trickle of hope


A trickle of hope

In the global anti-COVID-19 campaign, the Philippines is proudly taking up the rear.

According to reports, Pfizer/BioNTech has been procured by 70 countries; Oxford/AstraZeneca (55), Moderna (28), Sputnik V (17), Sinopharm/Beijing (14), Sinovac (6), Sinopharm/Wuhan (2), and Covaxin (1); while we have just begun to roll out Sinovac by virtue of a donation and not through the government’s procurement efforts (or lack of it). That rollout, complete with symbolic, giant cardboard syringes and other silliness, marks us as the last in Asean to start inoculating people with a COVID-19 vaccine.

Secretary of Health Francisco Duque III has cited Dr. Anthony Fauci’s statement that the best vaccine is the one available, which Fauci did indeed say, but he was referring to the recent authorization of Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose vaccine, which has a lower efficacy rate (at 72 percent in the US) than Pfizer’s or Moderna’s vaccines (95 percent and 94.7 percent, respectively). Last January, an article by Derek Lowe mentioned Sinovac’s inactivated virus vaccine had a revised efficacy rate of 50 percent in Brazil, while Indonesia reported an efficacy rate of 65 percent. Going back to Duque, he quoted Fauci as an introduction to his punchline: The vaccine available here, at home, is Sinovac. I say punchline because Fauci also said that all three vaccines (Pfizer, Moderna, and J&J) were excellent at preventing getting severe cases and fatalities from COVID-19. By all accounts, no such data exist in terms of Sinovac and Sinopharm.

One interesting detail is that Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana wanted to lead from the front by volunteering his arm for a Sinovac jab, only to be told he’s too old: it’s a vaccine only meant for those who are 18-59 years old, which suggests it’s tailor-made for getting national economies going. This is the age of productive members of the workforce; the kind who have to be brought back into productive use as quickly, and massively, as possible, with bulk being the most important consideration; put another way, it’s good and cheap enough on a massive scale, which is the only one that matters, economically speaking.

Still, a vaccine is a vaccine, especially when administered without charge. From the very start, the government said it would be strapped for cash and was going to have to borrow to meet its self-imposed target of inoculating 60-70 percent of our population (pause for a moment, and reflect on what that target tells us: 3-4 out of every 10 Filipinos won’t be getting a government-provided shot[s]; and you can be sure this percentage doesn’t reflect the middle or upper classes, but instead, the truly poor, those living in remote places, and so on). The private sector, as interested as anyone can possibly be in getting the economy moving again, recognized the challenge from the start and has been trying various proposals to address its own needs while helping the government achieve its goal. Most schemes being proposed are along the lines of a 1:1 or even 2:1 bulk purchase scheme, in which corporations or groups will donate vaccine doses to the government for every dose they’re allowed to procure. Then again, there have been the truly enterprising who smuggled in vaccines ahead of government approval, or knowledge, in the hope of not only profiting from a vaccine black market but being first in line to cash in as distributors of specific vaccines.

Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III for his part said that he sees the lifting of many remaining restrictions possibly by April, in line with the President’s latest national ramble, where he almost incidentally mentioned he will loosen restrictions once the country has reached 2 million doses of vaccines. As we have yet to be told the reason for this figure—it could be arbitrary—the best that it suggests is that officialdom feels safer about lifting restrictions once 2 percent of the population (at most; more like 1 percent since two doses are needed), if not 1 percent, gets inoculated.

But taking up the rear as we are, it also means we will have to wait as there are others ahead of us in line, as global supply chains struggle to produce the various vaccines. It’s been pointed out, even our status in the pecking order of Beijing was revealed by Cambodia, a reliable ally, getting its first doses of Chinese vaccines a full two to three weeks ahead of us.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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