Why we still don’t have mass vaccinations

Published February 27, 2021, 12:52 AM

by Manila Bulletin

Everyone is looking forward to the start of the vaccination program in the Philippines. Until it happens, President Duterte said, the further easing of restrictions in Metro Manila to Modified General Community Quarantine (MGCQ) will not take place despite the consensus of Metro Manila’s mayors that it is time for it.

It had been hoped by many that relaxation to MGCQ, the last level of restrictions before a return to normal, would take effect March 1. But President Duterte said it will be safer to wait for the start of mass vaccinations.

The question is: When will that be and when are the vaccines coming?

There had been hopes and expectations that they would come before the end of February. Simulations of swift transportation of the vaccines were held so there would be no delay from the airport to the vaccination centers. Simulations of vaccination by nurses were also held. But after all the practice jabs, the month of February is nearly over still without a single dose of vaccine.

There may be at least three possible reasons for this:

  • First, the Philippine government had held talks with American vaccine makers but the companies wanted down payments. Thus the first available doses went to the United States and Europe, which had long readied the needed funds.
  • Second, there was no Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from our Food and Drug Administration (FDA) until recently. The FDA needs to approve all drugs used in the Philippines. Vaccines normally take five years to complete all the needed tests; it has only been a year since the start of COVID-19 vaccine development. So what the FDA issued recently are only Emergency Use Authorization – for Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and Sinovac.
  • Third, the vaccine companies required an indemnification deal. They wanted to be protected from lawsuit, should there be any ill effects from the use of their drugs, since there is yet no full authorization, only emergency use authorization.

Aside from our government’s efforts to purchase vaccines from the manufacturers, the World Health Organization (WHO) has drawn up a plan, known as COVAX, to provide the poorer countries with some vaccines. COVAX had an initial shipment of 117,000 doses of Pfizer vaccine for the Philippines, but delivery was delayed by the lack of an indemnification plan.

Last Tuesday, the Senate approved Senate Bill 2057, the COVID-19 Vaccination Act of 2021. It provides for a P500-million Indemnity Fund to compensate inoculated individuals who may suffer adverse effects or death from an innoculation. When will it be signed into law?

The COVAX vaccines from WHO may come any time now, but the vaccines we are purchasing on our own will need funds that are not yet available. There is also no indemnity plan in effect yet. Shall we dare begin mass vaccinations without such an indemnity plan?