While waiting for the vaccine

Since the announcement two weeks ago by the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer that it has successfully tested a vaccine for COVID-19 that is both safe and efficacious, hopes for an end to the pandemic have risen. Pfizer reported an efficacy rate of more than 90 percent. A week later, Moderna, a smaller company, followed suit, claiming that the final phase of its clinical trials showed that their vaccine, using basically the same pathbreaking mRNA technology, has an even higher efficacy rate of 94.5 percent.

Both press releases were quite unusual. News about the discovery of a successful vaccine is normally first communicated through peer-reviewed medical scientific journals. It is perhaps a testimony not just to the urgency of this information to the world, but also to its enormous commercial and political value, that this development was met with pure rejoicing.

Never mind that important details pertaining to the methodology and design of the trials were omitted. By noting that the results exceeded all expectations, they offered humanity a glimmer of the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. (A 60-percent efficacy rate without serious side effects would have been acceptable.)

The two vaccines were found to have no severe side effects on participants in the clinical trials. That is very reassuring. Experts say, however, that it may be too soon to discount the possibility of adverse long-term effects. For the moment, other equally important questions are also left unaddressed. For example: How long is the conferred immunity expected to last? Will the vaccine work uniformly across ethnic, gender, and age groups? Will it equally protect the elderly and those suffering from high-risk health conditions? Does the vaccine protect against infection, or does it simply prevent infection from developing into severe illness?

Other issues have been raised in the wake of these announcements. It has been noted, for instance, that Pfizer’s vaccine requires storage in 100 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, a logistical hurdle that needs to be taken into account given that delivery trucks and hospitals with this capability are not common, especially in developing countries. Moderna’s vaccine seems to be superior in this regard because it is supposed to be able to tolerate higher temperatures. Moderna claims it is enough to store its vaccine in the freezer of an ordinary household refrigerator.

The excitement generated by these twin announcements has sent governments rushing to make advance payments for the limited first batch of these vaccines. Countries like the United States and the United Kingdom that have previously invested enormous sums of money to develop these vaccines will surely get it first.

Those that hesitated, for any number of reasons, to make the down payment cannot expect to get significant quantities of these early vaccines. Countries like the Philippines can consider themselves lucky to obtain enough supplies even for their frontline health workers earlier than the fourth quarter of 2021. The latest news reports say that we have actually just started to hold talks with Pfizer and Moderna.

Much of the Duterte administration’s hope in a COVID-19 vaccine has been invested in China and Russia’s promise of early delivery of their respective vaccines. Both claimed as early as several months ago that they were already in late-stage clinical trials. China’s Sinovac has just applied to conduct Phase 3 trials in the Philippines, having hurdled the evaluation by the country’s vaccine experts’ panel. Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine is currently undergoing the same evaluative process.

This whole complex process takes time and could be abbreviated only at tremendous risk. We should be thankful to the career scientists in our laboratories who take pains to fully scrutinize the candidate vaccines submitted to them before these are administered to thousands of our people in clinical trials. Ideally, there is no place in their line of work for the preferences expressed by the country’s political leaders.

In a previous column, I had warned against being fixated with a COVID-19 vaccine as the only effective response to the pandemic. Vaccine fixation relegates the need to find cheaper and easier modes of testing for the virus and approaches to treating the disease to minor importance. It also predisposes decision-makers to put everything on hold until the vaccine arrives, instead of asking people to do what is necessary to stop the spread of the virus.

China has effectively stopped the coronavirus threat without waiting for a vaccine. So have other countries like Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea, and New Zealand. Some deployed the strictest lockdowns to achieve this. But many others made do with less harsh public health measures that proved to be just as effective when carried out with great diligence and the cooperation of a highly motivated and informed public.

As we wait for our turn in the lengthening existential queue for a COVID-19 vaccine, it will not hurt to remind ourselves of those fundamental measures that have been proven to be effective in stopping the contagion. These are, according to America’s top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci: 1. Wearing of face masks, 2. Keeping physical distance, 3. Avoiding crowds especially indoors, 4. Doing things outdoors to the extent possible, and 5. Frequent washing of hands.

Over the past eight months, we gradually incorporated these into the observances of daily life. In the process, we have learned to be patient, considerate, grateful, generous, and socially aware—beneficial side effects that no vaccine can bring about.