The President’s fifth column

The President’s fifth column

By Armenio Manuel


We are, to say the least, ill at ease with President Rodrigo Duterte’s announcement, bubbling with hope that by December the Philippines, which has recorded 98,232 in infections and 2,039 in deaths from the coronavirus as at weekend last, “will be back to normal.”

In his address to his countrymen on Friday, the President, speaking from the riverside Malacanang in Manila, attended by Cabinet members, said: “I promise you, by the grace of God, I hope by December we will be back to normal. Don’t mind the new normal because as I told you from the start, let’s just wait for a vaccine. Just wait till December … We are not going back to a ‘new normal.’ It’s going to be normal again.”

We find his comment to support his hope as rather frightening. Read his lips from the seat of power: “We have a plan and we can execute it as soon as the DoH (Department of Health) chooses which vaccine or vaccines they want. Certainly, by late this year, if it’s available, we can already buy it.”

According to the President, the first COVID-19 vaccine may come from China, where the disease had originated. He mentioned China’s Sinovac Biotech and Sinopharm Biotech as potential sources of the vaccine.

And he referred – yes, he did – to friendly bilateral ties with China, saying Beijing had “guaranteed” that it would give priority to the Philippines once the vaccine was ready.

We see in the President’s remarks on China a “too soon” comment and kind of a Trojan Horse, four years away after China rejected a ruling by the International Arbitral Court which favored the Philippines that it had rights over the West Philippine Sea and said there was “no legal basis for China to claim historic rights” over its unrecognized nine-dash line.

China’s “guarantee” therefore appears like a gift from the Greek bearing gift. And the President appears buoyant about it.

China, fast out of the gate in announcing and promising to have a vaccine ready by end of 2020, has raised hopes among countries, with Chinese companies putting focus on inactivated vaccines as a first line of vaccine, which experts say “is immunogenic, quick to develop and low-cost.”

But there is a catch here. Some viruses become more potent when they infect organisms previously treated with inactivated vaccines, in a poorly understood phenomenon known as antibody-dependent enhancement.

This was reported last year in monkeys given a vaccine for the coronavirus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

And while scientists race in developing a vaccine as countries continue to report increases in deaths and infections, the Philippines itself has placed many areas back to the General Community Quarantine level, a rung below the Enhanced Community Quarantine, because of the continuing spike.

As from mid-March, the government and health authorities have imposed lockdowns, seen as among the world’s strictest and longest, and have taken a toll on the country’s fast-growing economy, with gross domestic product expected to shrink 2 percent to 3.4 percent in 2020, the first contraction in more than two decades.

The measures were eased on June 1 to restart commerce and stem the losses, but infections have since increased five-fold to near the 100,000 mark, with deaths more than doubling to 2,039.

The President should be more prudent in raising the hopes of the people, many of whom have lost their jobs and kin who have since January been on the front line to save their infected countrymen – the young, the women, the men and the elderly.

And these front liners, perhaps a presidential slip-up, were not mentioned in the President’s priority for the vaccines.

We are aware that drug development is at times described as a pipeline, with compounds moving from early laboratory and animal testing to clinical trials in people. And it can take a decade or more for a new compound to go from initial discovery to the marketplace with, medical experts suggest, many compounds never making it that far.

Scientists from the United Kingdom, in a review in the British Journal of Pharmacology, have called for wider screening of existing drugs to see if these may work against the new coronavirus, which worldwide has, to date, infected 17,396,943 and killed 675,060.

The scientists have identified three stages of infection at which the virus could be targeted: keeping the virus from entering a person’s cells, preventing it from replicating inside the cells, and minimizing the damage the virus does to the organs.

They have stressed that many of the drugs being developed or tested for COVID-19 are antivirals which would target the virus in people who already have an infection.

Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez, among Cabinet members present during the President’s address, said the government could finance the purchase of 40 million doses of the vaccine estimated to cost about P20 billion ($400 million).

Dominguez said: “We have a financing plan for that. The Department of Health estimates that we will need to vaccinate for free a minimum of 20 million people. I don’t know if it’s one vaccine or two shots. So, we need 40 million doses; 40 million times $10 per dose is $400 million or roughly 20 billion pesos.”

Sounds good. But we should go beyond the buzzword, considering that there are 110 million people from Batanes to Tawi-Tawi. We wonder what would happen to the 90 million people, who include the front liners not identified in the priority of the President.

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