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It’s a P5-billion lesson. This week, the Department of Health and the Health Technology Assessment Council decided to finally allow those 50 to 59 years old and those 18 to 49 years old with comorbidities to receive their second COVID-19 booster vaccinations.
This would have been welcome news back in April when I first sounded the alarm about the millions of expiring vaccines in private sector warehouses, or even back in March, when the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised its guidelines to allow second boosters for adults 50 years old and older,and for those who are at higher risk from COVID. But the DOH and HTAC’s decision came one day before our private sector-acquired Moderna vaccines expired, and four days before our AstraZeneca vaccines expired.
These were hard-earned vaccines, paid for by the private sector and acquired through a world’s-first tripartite agreement that overcame regulatory roadblocks at a time when the Philippines was nowhere near the front of the queue for COVID vaccines.
So what happens now? With hope, there will be enough Pfizer vaccines to cover both first AND second boosters for the 55 million-plus fully vaccinated Filipinos who have yet to receive even their primary booster shots. With hope, by September, the State of Public Emergency will have been lifted and the pharma companies already have their Certificates of Product Registration so they can make the vaccines commercially available. With hope, Filipinos’ immunity will be strong enough to keep them out of the hospitals and our economy on the road to recovery.
Keeping my spirits up is the President’s prioritization of measures meant to protect health and the economy. Under his leadership, I hope we will have an action-oriented response and more science-driven decisions in our health agencies.
Can we do it? Consider how much we had to overcome to get 70 million-plus Filipinos fully vaccinated. We had zero doses when vaccines became available in early 2021, and we were facing down a virus that even the most industrialized countries in the world were struggling to control.
And yet here we are. We survived Omicron without the devastating number of deaths that other countries suffered, and our economy is starting to get back on track. We were able to hold peaceful elections without experiencing a massive rise in cases and, as a nation, we pulled together to keep the virus at bay by observing the recommended public health protocols.
So, how hard will it be to booster 23 million Filipinos in the first 100 days of the Marcos administration? I think there have been headways made.
The brightest minds in the country, both from the private and public sector, have generously contributed their insights into how we can best navigate this pandemic. It is through their guidance that we were able to make difficult decisions and come out on top, like the decision to lock down in August 2021 so we can gain momentum in the fourth quarter. They are now advising the use of HCUR and ADAR as metrics for a traffic-light alert level system so we can continue with an active economy and keep our population healthy.
The experts at the advisory council of experts, who drew up the plan, say that it is highly unlikely for a lockdown to be called if we adopt this system because ADAR will have to be greater than 18 and HCUR must be at higher levels of 50 percent. The system ensures transparency in decision-making and incentivizes the good pandemic status of regional governments.
The adoption of the traffic light system is in sync with the President’s vow to not put the country under lockdown again. This promise of no more lockdowns is exactly what the private sector and MSMEs need to fully recover from the pandemic.
Signs are already pointing to a more nimble pandemic response. This is good news, especially to the private sector and the MSMEs who took a heavy beating during the pandemic. With hope, science – and a heaping dose of common sense – will now be our guides as we battle the converging storm of high prices and the threat of variants and the rise in severe cases.
Of course it was still regrettable – and entirely preventable – that we had to waste billions of pesos in vaccines simply because we couldn’t put them in people’s arms fast enough, but there is always hope. I think we are headed in the right direction, and I am hopeful that with President Marcos’s determination and with Congress behind him, health and the economy will indeed be a priority of this government.
Our former DOH Secretary and now Congresswoman Dr. Janette Garin has been lending her voice to our efforts, and she very wisely suggested that the National Immunization Technical Advisory Group (NITAG) handle immunization in the country. She was also our ally in pressing for urgency in vaccination policy recommendations.
It was she who first saw how NITAG can help in a pandemic situation. She saw its importance back in 2019, when even before the COVID-19 outbreak had us scrambling to put together various teams to handle the many tasks involved in managing a pandemic.
Along with NITAG, the vaccine expert panel of the technical working group for COVID-19 vaccines of the Department of Science and Technology was also invaluable in our efforts to push vaccinations and keep the economy open.
The proposed creation of the Philippine Center for Disease Prevention and Control, which will be under the Department of Health, and the Virology institute of the Philippines, which will be under the Department of Science and Technology, as well as the establishment of a Medical Reserve Corps, will harness our country’s most powerful resource, its people, to help us respond better and faster when the next public health emergency happens.
If we learn from our experiences with COVID, we will be able to better handle future public health emergencies moving forward. With hope, the next time around, the lesson will not cost us billions of pesos.