By Robert B. Roque, Jr.
A recent Pulse Asia survey tells us that 47 percent of Filipinos are hesitant or even afraid to take any coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) vaccine. No one can blame them. The last time the government brought in a first-time-use vaccine, 600 Filipino children died.
That number carried in news reports can be debated. Still, the fact is, 132 autopsies pointed to Dengvaxia – the anti-dengue vaccine by French drugmaker Sanofi Pasteur – as the probable culprit in their deaths.
That happened in an election year, when political stakes run high and, obviously, the government committed a fatal P3.5-billion mistake. That administration is long gone, but its error on that one health issue remains hard to forgive.
It’s 2021, folks, and the powers-that-be must heed the lessons from that bitter experience – not just from a political perspective one year shy of the next general elections – but more so from a humanitarian point of view.
The assumption is: those who govern shall not spend their constituents’ taxes on a vaccine that can poison or kill them. Dr. Anna Liza Ong-Lim, private sector representative and technical adviser to the Department of Health expert panel, gave a refreshing assurance that in choosing the COVID-19 vaccine to procure for the Philippines, “primacy is given to safety over efficacy”.
If so, the Duterte administration should prove it by not rushing into sweet deals with vaccine manufacturers whose safety and efficacy claims are shrouded in doubt. Senators claim that such is the case with Sinovac of China, from which the government is ordering 25 million doses of its Coronavac.
Its pricing was also scored for being the most expensive among seven candidates in the government’s vaccine portfolio. The cost, according to DOH data released last year, is P3,629 per dose for Coronavac. Pfizer’s, the most widely used in the United States, is only P2,379 per dose, while United Kingdom-based AstraZeneca’s is P610 per jab, and Novavax is P366.
The more it appears that this vaccine deal is suspicious, the more distant and hesitant Filipinos would be in lining up for inoculation even if it were offered free and even if Cabinet members received the jabs first to prove they are safe. By the way, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque already turned off a lot of netizens once looking forward to the national vaccination program by his “don’t be choosy” remark.
The truth is, there is no perfect vaccine that guarantees immunity now and promises forever without side effects. Even if any or all of these vaccines get FDA approval, none of them will come with a safety warranty. But at least for the purpose of achieving herd immunity by targeting half of our population – 50 million Filipinos – let’s uphold our right to be choosy.
And let the government’s choice be guided by careful assessment of data on each vaccine, not by association with a favored supplier or sheer diplomacy towards a country zealous in its pursuit of global influence. Let the Senate oversight hearings continue. More importantly, let it lead to better decisions by the government – a government that should be choosy for our sake.
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