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[OPINION] We will forge ahead in getting our vaccines

BABE’S EYE VIEW FROM WASHINGTON D.C. – Ambassador B. Romualdez (The Philippine Star) – May 2, 2021 – 12:00am

As far as our work in Washington is concerned, our top priority is to tirelessly work in getting as much as possible all the vaccines we need for our country now and in the future. I understand how anxious we are about our current situation but I am confident we will be in a good place by September of this year once most of the vaccines we ordered from the United States will be delivered.

Obviously, the only light at the end of this tunnel are the vaccines. Seeing the success of the vaccine rollout in the United States, reaching a milestone with the vaccination of over 50 percent or 130 million of the adults, we are determined more than ever to follow the same path. Experts are praising the program and all indications point to its success, especially since over 84 million adult Americans or about 32.5 percent of the total population have been fully vaccinated in what has been described as “breakneck speed” at a rate of three million inoculations per day.

Earlier this week, the White House announced that it would be sending some 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccines abroad since it already has a “strong portfolio of vaccines” in large quantities that are already authorized for use – underscoring the fact that the US understands the need for the vaccines in helping achieve global herd immunity in controlling the pandemic. No country will be immune (no pun intended) until we reach that goal.

The decision to share the AstraZeneca vaccines has split the Biden administration officials, with some arguing that the US government’s stockpile of vaccines should not be compromised given the recent problems in vaccine production – in particular the 15 million vaccine doses from Johnson & Johnson that had to be discarded because workers from a subcontractor mixed up the ingredients, resulting in cross-contamination.

Last Friday, we had lunch with White House National Security Council officials to discuss, among other things, our need for vaccines. They assured us the Philippines is very much in the White House radar on our need for vaccines. Dr. Beth Cameron of the NSC was extremely helpful in getting our Pfizer vaccines through the COVAX Facility expedited. We were also informed that the AstraZeneca US vaccine supply will very likely be distributed through the COVAX Facility.

We are currently on track with Moderna for the first batch of delivery for our 20 million doses starting in June, exponentially increasing until the end of this year. We have also recommended to Secretary Galvez to secure another 10 million of the Moderna booster shots which will be available early next year.

The booster shots from Moderna will definitely help even those who have already been inoculated with a different COVID-19 vaccine since the boosters will be universal – meaning they can complement other vaccine brands previously administered to an individual.

Finance Secretary Sonny Dominguez also suggested the inclusion in next year’s budget of P100 billion for the continuing supply of vaccine booster shots to protect Filipinos from the new virus variants that are expected to emerge in the next three to five years.

One good advantage that Moderna vaccines have is that storage in refrigerators only requires temperatures between 36 and 46 degrees Fahrenheit, good for 30 days – making it easier for distribution to areas that do not have advanced storage facilities. Moderna international executives have also signified an interest in setting up a distribution facility for Asia in the New Clark City, with the end in view of having a co-manufacturing agreement with local partners.

We also requested Secretary Galvez to start the process and discuss, not only with Moderna but other US vaccine manufacturers like Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson, our vaccine supply requirements for 2022 and 2023. We share the same view as Secretary Galvez that we will start seeing good vaccination results by November as more vaccines start coming in by June, bringing us closer to our target of achieving herd immunity for places like Metro Manila where the infection rate has been high.

Scientists are also relentlessly working in finding ways to beat this pandemic. GE for instance is working on a tiny sensor that could be embedded in smartphones which could then detect the presence of the coronavirus and other pathogens in the air. The concept is revolutionary and, if successful, would provide a first line of defense against exposure to viruses.

An Israeli company has also developed a nasal spray that would serve as a second layer of protection against COVID-19 infection, especially in crowded and enclosed spaces. The nasal spray, which works as a barrier against the virus, can provide a five-hour protection. However, the spray should not be a substitute for mask wearing, social distancing and hand washing. Secretary Galvez told us he is already talking to Israel regarding the nasal sprays as an additional protection against the virus.

There is absolutely no doubt that vaccines are the only way out of this COVID pandemic, not only for the Philippines but for the rest of the world. Clearly, continued vaccination will help us achieve some semblance of “normalcy” down the road.

For now, it looks like we are heading in the right direction, getting ready to work on a steady supply of vaccines for the next two years to better prepare us for new variants that are expected to emerge. As I said, we are incessantly determined to make this our top priority and will not stop until we are sure of getting enough vaccine supplies for our country.

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