Putting on the ‘vaccine’ gloves

Published November 21, 2020, 11:02 PM

by Philip Cu Unjieng


Philip Cu Unjieng

When Senator Manny Pacquiao was in the prime of his boxing odyssey, an oft-repeated phrase during his Sunday morning fights (Manila time), was ‘Nag umpisa na ba ang boxing?’ Fast-forward to the last months of 2020, and if there’s something we’re all looking forward to, it’s to ask “Nag-start na ba ang vaccine?” – and we chart its progress all over the globe.

It’s the first key or solution to gaining a true semblance of normalcy, of getting the restrictions on movement and travel eased. It’s the great panacea the whole world is waiting for. And without intentionally being a killjoy, it’s only right that I point out the big divide and disparity that lies between Expectation and Reality when it comes to the COVID-vaccine.

Last week’s euphoria began when Pfizer announced a 90% efficacy for the Phase 3 trials of their vaccine; and before the dust had even settled, another US company, Moderna, was reporting a 94.5% success rating for its own Warp Speed product. They’re both of the mRNA variety, meaning snippets of the genetic code of the virus’ spike proteins will be administered in two doses, a week or two apart, and this triggers an immune response. I’m not a doctor or medical specialist, so I’ll leave it to them to explain how it works. But I can read the material, analyze, and make the following observations.

First off, Pfizer’s vaccine requires stringent and extreme cold-storage requirements: -70 degrees Celsius (or -94 degrees Fahrenheit). Immediately, this makes it unsuitable for tropical countries, 3rd World nations, and situations where you plan to bring it to remote provinces and/or far flung areas. Thankfully, Moderna’s vaccine only needs storage at -20 degrees Celsius (or -4 degrees Fahrenheit). With refrigeration, it can last for close to 30 days – similar to how the smallpox vaccine is handled. I mention all of this because if not properly stored before being administered, it can make one’s vaccination moot and pointless.

Reports have reached us that major adverse reactions have to do with fatigue, joint pain, and injection-site pain. All a small price to pay if we’re now confidently COVID immune. And while the test groups were ethnically diverse and included senior citizens, there were no children or pregnant women who took part in the trials. So if FDA approval is what’s on your mind, predictions are for first round production possibly happening by end-December, and early spring of 2021 for wide availability WITHIN the United States.

Remember, it’s not vaccines that save lives, it’s vaccinations! Efficacy and effectiveness are two different things. While it’s efficacy may point in the right direction, we don’t yet know how it’ll behave under wide application conditions. Plus there is the logistical challenge of getting it out there; mass-producing, maintaining quality control, and still enjoying that success ratio. I hear Moderna has several potential locations for production, and one site is Indonesia. Whether that will help us here in the Philippines vis-a-vis global distribution, only time will tell.

For now, Moderna has been talking about $37 per dose (you need two doses). And believe me, there will be a mad scramble to be first in line for distribution when these companies start looking beyond the United States. Which actually begs the question, what is happening to the vaccine being developed by AstraZeneca at Oxford University? And why do we no longer hear anything about Russia’s Sputnik V, the vaccine our own President was ready to be a test case for, and offered Filipinos to be “guinea pigs”? For the Philippines to be the official recipient of any of these vaccines, at a volume where many of the front-liners, high risk individuals, and persons of interest can be administered, the “solution” looks to be an uphill, arduous process.

I have the following observations/predictions, and some may seem far-fetched or make you laugh. But before you outright dismiss them, let’s reconvene months from now, and let’s see whether I was actually prescient, or just letting my imagination run amuck:

1. The new status symbol of early 2021 for the Filipino elite – whether from government, politics, big business or entertainment – will be to have in their possession a certificate stating they have been COVID-vaccinated. The moment the US FDA gives its approval, watch the Pinoys rush to be first in line via a) dual citizenship, b) the long-lost cousin who you helped through college and now works in the medical profession in America, c) the American doctor, whose friendship you’ve nurtured for decades, or d) the blatant “Money is no object” proposition. Mind you, this is before a single vaccine shipment officially arrives on our shores. It will be a game of dividing the haves from the have-nots – and it won’t matter if they belong to a high-risk group or not. It’s really about “I could make this happen,” “inggit lang kayo.” In fact, I’m predicting that if there’ll be a firs- ever case of someone stealing the vaccine, it’ll be a Filipino-American, pressured by his kamag-anak back home.

2. Historically, we’re the nation of “blue seal,” of PX, of things imported. So watch a black market of the vaccine appear prior to legitimate deliveries of the vaccine. Of course, this means profiteering, and we can forget the officially pronounced $37 price tag per dose of Moderna. There’ll even be fake vaccines from Phi-tser or Muderma; and if any of their “clients” still contract the virus, these “underground economists” have the built-in excuse of “So you’re one of the 5%, tsk, tsk, tsk.” And before you raise your eyebrows at the idea of such unscrupulous motives existing during pandemic-time, can we please not forget that the face shields we see now being retailed for P20, are the very same shields that were costing close to P100 in early April – makes you wonder what the actual acquisition cost was for the importers.

3. When the first official shipments start arriving, watch the politicians of our country place themselves at the head of the line (except for those who can proudly say they’re already vaccinated and immune – our political primus inter pares). Will it be front-liners, high-risk groups first? Perhaps officially, yes; but we’re Filipinos, and our national sports are making “singit,” and being “llamado.”

Just saying…