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Unnecessary wastage

/ 04:35 AM August 01, 2022

The Department of Health (DOH) last week announced the expanded coverage of the second COVID-19 booster shot to include adults at least 50 years old and those aged 18 to 49 with existing medical conditions. It said the decision came after the proposal to widen the coverage of the second booster passed the review of its advisory body, the Health Technology Assessment Council (HTAC).

“As vaccine immunity wanes over time, we are dedicated to helping our people remain protected against COVID-19. We are making it easier for as many people to avail [themselves] of the primary series and boosters, including second boosters,” declared DOH officer in charge Maria Rosario Vergeire.

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That decision, however, came rather belatedly.

Go Negosyo founder Joey Concepcion pointed out that more than 4.25 million COVID-19 vaccines, bought by the private sector for about P5.1 billion, have already expired because of the delay in allowing some segments of the population to get inoculated with second booster shots. Some 3.6 million Moderna vaccine doses expired on July 27, while 632,000 vaccine doses from AstraZeneca expired on July 31.

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Months before their expiry date, Concepcion had repeatedly urged the HTAC to expand the scope of those allowed to receive the second booster shot and use those COVID-19 vaccines. “The sense of urgency is quite not there. The private sector and the government are trying to do their best, but there’s a body that is somehow moving quite slow,” he lamented.

The DOH answered criticism over the expiration of the vaccines by saying that its vaccination program remains “safe and guided by science.’’ But HTAC must explain why it took a long time to decide. The DOH’s nonchalance attitude to the monumental wastage of much-needed vaccines, even as the country is behind its vaccination target, is deplorable.

Concepcion pointed out that the vaccines were bought from the United States, which is already giving the second booster to its residents. “If the Americans are the ones who invented these vaccines and then we bought [these] from them, shouldn’t we follow what CDC (US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) is doing? It’s the same thing,” Concepcion explained. He added that the expiration of the vaccines could have been avoided had the HTAC “simply listened and learned from the guidance of the CDC back in March when it recommended additional boosters for those as young as 50 years old.”

Many countries around the world have already found that persons younger than 60 could benefit from second boosters, and the DOH could have been more diligent in validating the merits of second boosters and implementing timely administration of the vaccines.

Hopefully, some 1.6 million vaccines purchased by the private sector that are set to expire in mid-August could still be used for the expanded vaccination. Still, the 4.25 million vaccines, which could have made a big contribution to the government’s target, have already been wasted unnecessarily.

As if adding insult to injury, Health Undersecretary Beverly Ho said the government is open to replacing the expired doses—at a cost to the companies. After wasting the private sector’s money for its delayed decision, it now wants companies to shell out millions of pesos again to buy vaccines to replace those that expired because of the DOH’s dilly-dallying. More than this wastage of effort and money, millions could have been vaccinated had the government expanded the coverage of booster shots much earlier. The government could have boosted the protection of millions of Filipinos against the virus—without spending a centavo of taxpayer money.

We’re still a long way from providing protection against the coronavirus for the target population. Out of 65.34 million eligible individuals, only 15.9 million have received the booster dose. Setbacks such as the expiration of millions of vaccines should not happen again. Delays from the DOH do not only cost the private sector money, they also put Filipinos at great risk of getting infected with COVID-19 because of the waning protection from their initial vaccine doses.

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Moving forward, it is hoped that President Marcos Jr. will name a health secretary soonest. Someone who can craft the new administration’s more responsive and agile program to address not only the COVID-19 pandemic, but the threat of the monkeypox virus after the country reported its first case last week. The government’s response to these twin health issues should now also consider critical factors, such as the return of in-person classes starting this month and the return of more workers onsite as more economic sectors reopen.

With COVID-19 variants still on the rise and with the likely spread of the monkeypox virus, the country cannot afford to unnecessarily waste more time and money as it did in the 4.25 million much-needed vaccines that were left to expire.

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TAGS: Department of Health, Editorial, expired COVID-19 vaccines, Health Technology Assessment Council
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