Settling for the mediocre
“A 50-percent efficacy rate for the China-made Sinovac vaccine is “acceptable,’’ according to an official of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) last week. “That is the minimum requirement set by the World Health Organization for a vaccine to be used by a country,” said Jaime Montoya, executive director of the DOST’s Philippine Council for Health Research and Development.
He offered some maybe’s to further sweeten the pot: Maybe the Sinovac vaccine’s efficacy will go up as more people use it, maybe it is more effective to a particular group of people, etc.
Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire seconded Montoya’s words, also citing the WHO’s minimum efficacy rate for vaccines at 50 percent and a “desired efficacy’’ of 70 percent.
The statements of the two officials were met, understandably, with widespread skepticism. Why settle for the minimum, when there are better vaccines in the global market that the government could get, if it really wanted to? What’s with the Duterte administration’s preference for the vaccine produced by China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd., which, compared to other vaccines, is inferior at this point and yet more expensive?
Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri, for one, was so disturbed by the government moves championing the Sinovac vaccine that he called it “totally unacceptable and a total waste of our funds and resources.’’ “That there is a 50/50 chance of your getting COVID-19 even after being vaccinated is a joke!” he stressed. Also, the “safety of our people should come first, not the feelings of our neighboring friends.”
That goes without saying. But President Duterte appears to be undaunted in favoring the Chinese vaccines; he has instructed Food and Drug Administration director general Rolando Domingo to fast-track the approval of vaccines from China, including Sinovac and Sinopharm (which Mr. Duterte said he also preferred as it has reportedly been given to a million Chinese soldiers. Peru, however, suspended clinical trials for Sinopharm after finding neurological symptoms corresponding to a condition called Guillain-Barre syndrome).
As early as September, Mr. Duterte had announced that the Philippines would give preference to Chinese and Russian vaccines “provided that their vaccine is as good as any other in the market.’’
Are they? Domingo had the good sense to ask for caution and patience, telling the President that the phase 3 clinical trial of Sinovac is still wrapping up this month and that the FDA could only make an evaluation once the interim results have been released.
Sinovac’s as-yet incomplete data are just one of its drawbacks. The drug’s efficacy pales in comparison with the vaccine jointly produced by the US drug firm Pfizer and the German biotech company BioNTech SE (95 percent efficacy rate), the other US company Moderna (94 percent), and the British drug firm AstraZeneca (62 percent to 90 percent). These vaccines have already been approved for rollout in the United States, Europe, and several other countries.
Sinovac is also more expensive, costing P3,629.50 per two doses, compared to Pfizer’s P2,379, Moderna’s P3,904 to P4,504, and AstraZeneca’s P610.
Brazil was running the final phase 3 trial for the vaccine but withheld disclosure of the full results reportedly upon the request of Sinovac, raising concerns about transparency. Taiwan said it will not avail itself of Sinovac, not because of political reasons but for safety considerations, the withholding of information, and because “Chinese vaccines were found to have problems in the past.’’ Cambodia likewise said it would not accept the China vaccine at this time.
Dr. Tony Leachon, who briefly served as medical adviser to the National Task Force Against COVID-19, pointed out what should have been paramount in the government’s decision-making: “Efficacy and safety data are non-negotiable parameters. They are the most important factors in vaccine selection.’’
Why, then, is the Duterte administration seemingly determined to settle for the inferior and mediocre, when the lives of millions of Filipinos, and the very well-being of a country crippled by the double whammy of a health crisis and an economic implosion, are at stake?
“Para tayong tumataya sa perya gamit ang buhay ng tao,” lamented Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian. “We should get the best for our people’’—an admonition echoed by other legislators (Sen. Franklin Drilon: “We’re talking about the lives and future of Filipinos. We cannot accept that ‘that will do’ [attitude] when it comes to vaccines.’’ Deputy Speaker Loren Legarda: “Let’s not put people’s lives at risk, let’s not scrimp on the best, safest vaccines already approved by other countries’ medical experts and scientists by favoring the ‘puede na’ vaccines of 50 percent efficacy. Huwag naman po’’).
In rejecting Sinovac, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen declared: “Cambodia is not a dustbin…’’ Is the Philippines any different?
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