A view from the frontline

Published April 30, 2021, 8:45 AM

by Dr. Edsel Salvana

Why everyone’s participation is important in this fight

HOPE IN VIALS This week’s Philippine Panorama deep dives into the technicalities of the COVID-19 vaccine. Cover design by Jules Vivas

It has been more than a year since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the latest record-breaking surges worldwide remind us that this is far from over. With the unprecedented speed in which safe and effective vaccines have been developed, the promise of ending the pandemic quickly is no longer a dream. The rapid rollout of the Pfizer vaccine in Israel showed how fast the tide could turn, and how effective the vaccines could be.

Unfortunately, the Israel experience is not easy to replicate. A rich nation with a small population is far from the norm for most of the world. While vaccine manufacturers are working overtime to fill the global appetite for vaccines, some countries have opted to hoard more than their fair share of vaccines. Many vaccine-producing countries are angling for favorable geopolitical influence. India, by far the largest vaccine producer, is in the grip of a terrible surge and has decided to keep most of its vaccine production for its own use in the short term. The Covax facility of the World Health Organization, which aims to secure vaccines for resource-limited countries, has been beset by delays due to supply shortages. Many countries have not given a single dose, even as some rich countries are struggling to get their citizens to take any of the vaccines that are available.

EMBRACING THE VAX Loida and Richard Fourteau hug each other after receiving their first dose of Sinovac Vaccine for their protection against COVID-19 in the University of Cebu on April 19, 2021 (Photo by Juan Carlo de Vela)

The acute shortage of vaccines along with the surging cases and emerging variants shows that COVID-19 still has a lot left in its tank. While we expect vaccine supplies to improve once richer nations release their excess supply, many other problems remain. The emergence of rare side effects such as blood clots in the Astra and J&J vaccines have dented vaccine confidence, despite the overwhelming benefit of vaccines compared to the miniscule risks. Misinformation and antivaxxer propaganda magnify the actual risk of these rare side effects and cause a lot of vaccine hesitancy.

The Covax facility of the World Health Organization, which aims to secure vaccines for resource-limited countries, has been beset by delays due to supply shortages.

COVID-19 is not an equal opportunity disease. It causes disproportionate deaths among the elderly, front liners, and those with comorbid conditions. The rollout of vaccines in limited supply has rightly targeted these vulnerable groups. Unfortunately, even medical workers are not immune to vaccine hesitancy, with only 63 percent of Filipino healthcare workers opting to be vaccinated. While vaccine supplies remain low, it isn’t difficult to find takers down the line among priority groups. This just pushes the problem downstream, however, and once vaccine supplies improve, these remaining unvaccinated people will need to be addressed.

INJECT, BE SAFE A health worker filling a syringe with COVID-19 vaccine (Photo by Ali Vicoy)

Herd immunity from vaccines is one way out of the pandemic, but we need to inoculate at least 70 percent of the susceptible population. Even if we reach that number, nothing is certain since the current vaccines have not been proven to confer sterilizing immunity. Protecting the vulnerable population at highest risk for death can quickly bring down hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19. Looking at the Israel experience, there was a precipitous drop in cases once they fully vaccinated half of the senior population. Therefore, the benefits of a robust vaccination program will be felt even without achieving herd immunity.

As pandemic fatigue and depression threaten to overwhelm many of us, we should remember that we are in a much better position than we were last year. Doctors now know how to treat severe COVID-19 and keep patients alive. People have learned to protect themselves with masks and face shields. The lockdowns are no longer as harsh as they once were. Most of all, the availability of vaccines is the silver bullet we have been waiting for. The researchers and physicians have used their God-given talents to deliver a miracle. It is up to each of us to do our part and trust the science.