The administration needs to pay particular attention to the latest reports that AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine may be ineffective against the South African or B.1.351 variant of the virus, which, together with the United Kingdom variant, is confirmed to have entered the Philippines. On Thursday night, 487,200 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine arrived in the country via the World Health Organization’s Covax facility. Health Secretary Francisco Duque III declared that “[t]he long days and nights of waiting are finally over.”
Local governments, through the national government, have ordered 17 million doses of the vaccine. But the latest reports on AstraZeneca and the new variant recently discovered in Pasay City represent a looming complication that, unaddressed promptly and forthrightly, could derail the government’s vaccination program. Biologist Nicanor Austriaco of the OCTA Research Group had earlier warned that health authorities have only a two-week window to eliminate the South African variant found in Pasay. Should efforts to contain the spread of the new variant fail, the government would need to revisit its vaccine options to replace the millions of AstraZeneca doses it had ordered that may well “become useless.”
The Pasay City government assured on Wednesday that it had put stringent measures in place after three of its residents contracted the new strain, and the Department of Health (DOH) said it is closely monitoring the situation in the city south of Metro Manila that is now classified as a “critical risk” due to a surge in COVID-19 cases. “We will use any vaccine brand provided it is FDA-approved, regardless of its efficacy rate,” said Pasay Mayor Emi Calixto-Rubiano. “It is better to have [some protection against COVID-19] than nothing at all.” (Pasay City and other areas that have reported a spike in COVID-19 cases will be given priority in the allocation of vaccines, according to vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr.)
AstraZeneca is ranked fifth in terms of efficacy among the available COVID-19 vaccines with a 70-percent rate, after Pfizer (95 percent), Moderna (94 percent), Sputnik V (92 percent), and Novavax (89 percent). The World Health Organization has downplayed the study showing that AstraZeneca is only “mildly” effective against the South African variant, pointing out that it was based on limited samples, and therefore cannot be conclusive. The British manufacturer is also reportedly already developing a new vaccine that could serve as a third, or booster, shot against the South African variant.
While the British vaccine remains effective against the original coronavirus dominant in the Philippines, Austriaco said a cause for concern is how newer variants will affect the country’s vaccination drive, considering the very limited global supply of vaccines — not to mention that the Philippine government has yet to sign a single supply deal with vaccine manufacturers.
Thus, containing the spread of the new South African variant in Pasay City is critical. Dr. Alethea de Guzman, director of the DOH Epidemiology Bureau, said COVID-19 cases in the city already grew by 386 percent in the past two weeks, with an average daily attack rate of 24.7 per 100,000 population. The local government has conducted contact tracing on those who interacted with the three new variant cases, who were retested after their recovery. Calixto-Rubiano said one has been found negative, while results for the two other cases have yet to be released.
Last Thursday, the DOH reported 2,452 new cases, bringing the total active cases to 584,667 — the highest since Oct. 31, 2020. Then on Friday, the number continued to surge with 3,045 new cases recorded — the second highest daily uptick in infections over five months since the government eased quarantine restrictions.
Dr. John Wong, an epidemiologist and a member of the technical working group on data analytics of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases, said that new variants could be causing the surge in infections. As of Friday, there were 58 South African variant cases in the country — three have recovered and 55 are still active; and 118 UK variant cases — 39 are still active.
With the slow and much-delayed roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines in the country — launched only on March 1, the last among Asean countries — health authorities need to be aggressive all the more in detecting and containing new variants. The inoculation of frontline health workers, and the prompt contact-tracing and treatment of those who come into contact with carriers of the new strains, cannot be left to chance or careless work. The limited vaccines that have arrived so far are donations (Sinovac from China and AstraZeneca from Covax), and with the country yet to sign supply agreements that will guarantee vaccine doses, Filipinos will continue to face uncertainty — especially if cases surge again, and the government fails in quelling the spread of new variants.
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