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Planning for the Vaccine

The World Health Organization (WHO) issued a sobering assessment last week on the development of a vaccine against COVID-19. WHO officials said that “it did not expect widespread immunization against the novel coronavirus until mid-2021”. The statement came after a series of positive news from various countries racing to develop a vaccine that will neutralize the coronavirus which has so far infected more than 27 million people around the world and killed almost 900,000.

 

Just the week before, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had asked US public health officials to prepare to distribute a coronavirus vaccine by late October or early November, ”just in case” one is ready. Of course, this could mean that a vaccine is nearing development or it has to do with the nearing November presidential elections.

 

There have been very positive developments in the initial phases of the trials by several companies.  AstraZeneca PLC, a British-Swedish multinational pharmaceutical company, Moderna, Inc., based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Pfizer, Inc., and BioNTech SE, a US-German collaboration, China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd., and, Paris-based Sanofi have all reported encouraging results in their initial tests.

 

Just last month Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that his country has developed a COVID-19 vaccine named “Sputnik V” which has “passed all the required checks.” Russian scientists would later publish a report claiming that the early tests of the vaccine showed signs of an immune response.

 

These results are definitely very promising considering that under normal conditions, the development of vaccines takes years. But these are extraordinary circumstances. The coronavirus has infected many people and has devastated economies. The sooner we can find a vaccine the better it is for us in terms of recovering what we have lost.

 

We should, of course, consider the advice of the WHO when it cautioned against “approving a vaccine before its full risks and benefits are clear.” We need it fast but we should not take shortcuts. The trials are designed to address any serious safety concerns. Remember, unlike drugs, vaccines are typically given to relatively healthy people and shouldn’t create severe risks. The reason many vaccines have been used safely in the past is that they have been tested thoroughly.

 

While waiting for a safe and effective vaccine, I hope our government is preparing a comprehensive plan on how to distribute the vaccine when it becomes available. The fact is that, as experts suggested, even once the vaccine is approved, there won’t be enough doses (at least initially) to immunize everyone. It is almost certain that uncertainty and perhaps even politics will become an issue in its distribution.

 

For this reason, the government should be prepared to make decisions on how to allocate and distribute the vaccine. We cannot develop a plan only when the vaccine arrives. We need to do it now. I am glad that Congress has set aside a P10-billion standby fund to purchase vaccines once available. In addition, my good friend Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III has said that the plan is to procure 40 million doses of vaccines costing P20 billion.

 

And this is one question government needs to answer—how will they distribute these vaccines bought with public funds? Who should be prioritized? Will they allow vaccines to be bought privately (given its initial scarcity)? More importantly, what criteria should be used for its allocation? In addition to setting the guidelines, government agencies should prepare the logistical plan of actually distributing the vaccine in an efficient and organized way.

 

Scientists agree that the allocation of the vaccine should consider three key elements: reducing the most severe health effects of COVID-19, reducing the rate of transmission, and allowing the economy to return to normal. I think this is a very reasonable set of principles that should guide our plan to distribute the vaccine. Whether it comes this year or in the middle of next year, we need to plan ahead so we can make sure we do it right. The last thing we want is confusion and disorganization when the vaccine arrives.