The Quest for a vaccine


The Dispatcher
By EV Rieza

One might say it’s unlikely that we will have a coronavirus vaccine in the Philippines before 2020 ends. But it’s not bad to think positively.

As I write this piece, the New Yorker reported that in China “more than a hundred Communist Party cadres roughly at the level of juzhang, or director” have already received the Covid-19 vaccine by mid-year, voluntarily, ahead of any government approval.

This might shock us. Hearing people getting inoculated ahead of the Phase III test completion and without full government approval, is a total no-no for most of us. But for majority of these citizens who ‘volunteered’ to receive it, especially those in government, it’s a show of confidence in the whole effort of finding a vaccine.

For majority of Filipinos who still languish in trauma owing to a brief brush with death courtesy of the Dengvaxia vaccine in 2016, the mere thought of getting the coronavirus serum may feel creepy, let alone an untested one. So, you’d say it’s but natural if some wise guys demand – when a vaccine becomes available – that Philippine officials get the first shots good naturedly.

In the United States, the quest for a vaccine donned the political cloak, as the election draws near. Says New Yorker’s Peter Hessler, in his article Chinese Citizens Are Already Receiving a Coronavirus Vaccine:  “In the race to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus, one deadline has been defined with a precision that, if not scientific, has the clarity of an equation: the first Tuesday in November.”

“Throughout the fall, (President) Donald Trump, has frequently intimated that a vaccine might be approved before the election. The President may turn out to be correct, although the product that’s most likely to beat November 3rd is called Xinxing Guanzhuang Bingdu Miehuo Yimiao (Vero Xibao),” Hessler said in his September 29 article.

Yiwu He, the chief innovation officer at the University of Hong Kong told Hessler that “Chinese officials are thinking that Donald Trump might approve a U.S. vaccine before the election… So their goal is to have a vaccine approved before that.”

(Trump and his First Lady were later reported to have been infected with the COVID-19 virus. This time the US President may have finally become a full convert to its potency. He was put on an “experimental antibody drug October 2 and taken to Walter Reed National Medical Center”, less than 24 hours after testing positive. His wife, Melania, was brought to a separate facility for “full safety precaution”).

The arms race between the US and China has turned into a vaccine race, with Russia trailing not really far behind, battling “widespread skepticisms” on Sputnik V.  Hessler wrote that an epidemiologist in Shanghai said tensions between the U.S. and China had led to a stark sense of self-reliance, which means that anything one of them discovers won’t be shared with the other.

Yiwu He, the Chinese expert who said to have many years of experience in vaccine development in China, “expects that China National Biotec Group, or C.N.B.G., a Beijing-based pharmaceutical company that is the country’s largest vaccine manufacturer, will announce some level of approval for a coronavirus vaccine in October.”

The company has also “enrolled more than fifty thousand subjects in the United Arab Emirates, Peru, and other countries in South America and the Middle East that are currently suffering outbreaks”. Why in other countries? It’s because China had largely eliminated coronavirus cases since the spring.

So many Chinese did not want to wait for full approval of the vaccine before getting injected. The state press has reported that hundreds of thousands have already been vaccinated by CNBG, under an emergency-use approval granted by the government.

Needless to say, CNBG senior executives of the mother company Sinopharm. had also been injected by the test vaccine. Accordingly, the inoculation comes in two separate doses, once a year.

In the home front, we can only watch as the big shots talked about headways in the quest for the vaccine.

President Duterte, in August, mentioned about the distinct possibility of a Christmas without the virus. At one time, he offered himself to test the Sputnik V vaccine from Russia, and showed similar enthusiasm about Beijing’s vaccine efforts.

If the Philippines’ and Russia’s arrangements push through, there could be Sputnik V trials in the country this October.

Nikkei Asia reported in August: “If he (Duterte) did not have a close cooperation with President Putin, we would not have been able to have conversation with the Russian scientists,” said Rowena Guevara, undersecretary at the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) and the head of a technical working group on vaccine development. The day after the virtual meeting, the Philippines agreed with Sputnik V developer Gamaleya Institute to start local trials in October.

But critics say that pinning hopes on a miracle solution to Covid-19 could take precedence over strengthening the healthcare system, particularly the poor work conditions, since frontline medical personnel were the first who were hit hard by the virus. Contact tracing, a vital aspect of the fight against the virus, was somehow blurred along the way and not once did health officials accept they were at a loss.

As the government started easing up on lockdowns in many areas of the country, the semblance of normalcy may descend over the islands, especially during the Holidays. Make no mistake and stick to protocols. Otherwise, one may not live long enough to get a vaccine.

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