The long wait for vaccines

"Here’s the fine print."



The country is agog with the possibility that an anti-COVID-19 vaccine will come to the Philippines, by early 2021, per the most optimistic estimates.

Filipinos are in for a huge disappointment. An easily available, stable, and reliable anti-COVID-19 vaccine won’t come to the Philippines over the next two years, probably only after the country has elected Duterte’s successor in 2022.

For three basic reasons: One, the Duterte administration was late into the vaccine advanced purchase game.

Two, the vaccine Duterte wants to buy, from AstraZeneca (AZN), does not even exist yet. And even if it were produced today, the entire production had already been committed to countries other than the Philippines. AZN is not in the vaccine business. In effect, Duterte is like ordering billions of hamburgers from a supplier who had never produced a single burger and does not yet know how to make burgers.

Three, the AZN vaccine has serious reliability issues. The claimed 90 percent efficacy was discovered by mistake, when a contractor mistakenly injected half a dose into a trial group of less than 3,000 people, thinking it was injecting the full dose. In a separate trial group of 8,000 people given the full dose, the efficacy rate was 62 percent. Why is that? AZN does not know. It seems AZN will have to redo its experiments. That takes time.

Vaccine making is not like Moses receiving the Ten Commandments from God, where after some sound and fury and thunder from the skies, a new rule on how man should behave is written in stone. Vaccines take years, even decades, to develop. After the COVID virus, the big pharma companies went into a new mode of making vaccines—vaccine development by press releases.

Being press releases, the announcements stress the positive details and sublimate the problematic ones.

So AZN announced the 90 -percent efficacy rate but did not disclose right away that it was achieved by mistake and on a small trial group of less than 3,000 people.

Pfizer announced a 90-percent efficacy rate but did not disclose right away the preconditions to make its vaccine usable—a temperature of -70 Celsius, cooler than South Pole in winter (the Philippines has no such cold chain facility); a shelf life of just ten days; two doses are needed, given three weeks apart.

After the first dose, the patient waits 21 days for the second dose, meaning he is effectively quarantined for 21 days. After the second dose, he must wait for another 28 days to see if the vaccine works. That’s a total quarantine period of 49 days, effectively putting one under house arrest, just so one would be immune from COVID—for how long? Nobody knows. In the meantime, those who don’t get the vaccine can roam around during the 49 days that the vaccinated guy is isolated.

Even then when Pfizer announced its 90 percent efficacy rate, its CEO had the egregious foresight to sell 60 percent of his shares, raising $5.6 million in the process, and laughing all the way to his bank, and not to vaccine laboratory which by the way is run and owned by a husband and wife couple of German scientists who own BioNtech. Pfizer did not invent its COVID vaccine, BioNTech did.

The United States advanced as much as $10 billion to procure the best and the earliest available vaccine, under its Operation Warp Speed. So it will get the first crack at vaccines developed by the western world. They include the vaccines under development by Pfizer and BionNtech of Germany; Moderna of the US which uses US government scientists; and AstraZeneca and Oxford.

Only now is the Duterte government trying to raise the money, P75 billion, mostly borrowed money, supposedly good for 60 million Filipinos. That translates into P1,216 per person—cheap, very, very cheap. But that is assuming one dose per vaccination. Usually, you need two does to get the vaccine to work wonders. Some 60 million become only 30 million. Not enough. If you vaccinate only 30 million Filipinos, you won’t reach the so-called herd immunity—the threshold by which the virus stops replicating and infecting others at a ratio of less than one person for every sick person.

Thankfully, per Philippine data, only one of every 258 Filipinos will get COVID. And only one of every 33,333 Filipinos will die from COVID. Those are reassuring numbers—except when you are THAT one.

In the meantime, what does the Duterte government do while waiting for a vaccine? Well, it effectively bans Christmas by banning gatherings of more than 10 people and placing Metro Manila and other key cities under a continuing lockdown whose effect is that people will continue to be under the sway and power of policemen whose chief is the biggest violator of the pandemic ban on parties.

Life can be unfair, especially during Christmas.

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Topics: Tony Lopez , COVID-19 vaccine , AstraZeneca
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