#When will we be a Vaccine Nation

Published January 23, 2021, 11:47 PM

by Philip Cu Unjieng


Philip Cu Unjieng

(Part 2)

First used this title for my December 26 column, and it looks like the situation has cleared up only to a small degree, while simultaneously also getting murkier. So are we in terrible shape in contrast with other countries in our ASEAN region? When it comes to our near-future vaccine program, do we chalk it up to the fact that we’re just not a “rich nation”, as some spokesperson would have us believe? Is it simply a case of beggars can’t be choosers? Is there truly a thriving Filipino “black market” centered on smuggled, overpriced doses of the vaccine? And when is there real light at the end of this COVID-tunnel?

Last week, with the Department of Health report of 1,895 new COVID cases, we breached the 500,000 mark; with a 550,557 total of confirmed COVID cases, and with 9,978 deaths. This all adds up to the second highest in Southeast Asia. This was the dismal snapshot of our Covid situation as of January 20, 2021. Sure it pales in comparison to what is happening in the US of A, or the second wave that sprung up in some European countries. But for this part of the world, it’s not exactly an enviable track record when put alongside such developing nations as Vietnam –

which actually shares a border with China. There, they can say there have only been 1,539 cases, and 35 COVID-related deaths.

The news comes that the Philippines has ordered over 20 million doses of the Astra Zeneca vaccine; but that’s propelled by the private sector, and reports point to their arrival in the 3rd quarter of this year. We’ve also read about a bulk order for the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine, with an initial 50,000 doses coming in February. How those will be administered, who will be prioritized, remains to be seen. All over the world, wherever there are ongoing vaccine programs, it’s been the medical community front-liners and the high-risk senior citizens who have been placed at the top of the vaccine pyramid. And for publicity purposes, and to promote the safety of these vaccines, the heads of these nations have made a show of being administered the vaccine.

Indonesia started its vaccine program last week, January 13, with a campaign that included a number of its local social influencers; and there were a number of adverse reactions to that, as these influencers are neither high-risk nor front-liners. Singapore, with plans for over 30 COVID-vaccine centers, has earmarked its vaccines for Singaporeans, plus permanent and long-term residents. Singapore commenced their program last week.

Here, if we go by the fact that it’s private companies importing the vaccines, it stands to reason that they’ll have their own set of priorities – Upper management and their work force? Logically, that will be their hierarchy of priorities; and given it’s their money being spent to ship in these vaccines, who are we to argue? Of more interest will be watching what our government will do with its vaccine supplies. Will it be one politician after another before a single front-line doctor or senior citizen gets his dose?

Mind you, if whispered rumors and scuttlebutt are to be believed, there already exists a “black market” for these vaccines. Technically, they’re all smuggled, as other than Pfizer for emergency use, our local FDA hasn’t approved any of these vaccines yet. But we had the brouhaha about members of the PSG having gotten hold of the Sinopharm vaccine early this month. They were subsequently defended by our President, and to be brutally frank, I don’t blame him. These are the military people tasked with protecting him, so of course he’ll demonstrate to them that he’s on their side on the issue.

Then there are reports that a good number of the 500,000 registered Chinese nationals working here in the Philippines have also been vaccinated – a case of taking care of our own? If these reports are to believed, upwards of 20% of these registered Chinese ex-pats are already protected from the virus. Could they be the source of this underground market of vaccines that are apparently being priced way above the official price being publicly quoted by the source company?

Beyond Indonesia and Singapore, who have already commenced with their vaccine programs, Vietnam has ordered 30 million doses of Astra Zeneca; while developing its own home-grown Nanocovax. The Vietnamese authorities are hoping to pipeline these by the second half of the year; along with a second med-tech company that’s starting with its human trials.

Over in Thailand, it seems that confusion reigns. Officially, reports say that they’ve ordered 61 million doses from Astra Zeneca, which will be ready by June; and 2 million Sinovac that will be ready by next month. Thai hospitals have also placed their own orders. But conflicting reports and fake news about their inoculation program has grown so rife that on Tuesday (January 19), the prime minister announced that they would prosecute anyone who shares false information about their vaccine program on social or mass media. Mind you, we’re talking about a country that has reported only 12,594 cases, and 70 deaths.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers. I can only be hopeful, and lay out this Facts-ination report. Count yourself lucky if you’re employed by one of the companies importing doses of vaccine. Me, I’m a senior citizen and technically high-risk; but should I hold my breath waiting for the official government program to reach out and say I’m to report to so-and-so to get my jab? Or will I end up blue in the face, asphyxiated, from holding my breath?