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Amidst dwindling vaccination and boostering rates, the entry of new variants, and abundant supply of vaccines, Presidential Adviser for Entrepreneurship Joey Concepcion proposed that Covid-19 vaccines be given to those who would like to receive them as long as they are part of the eligible population or at least the priority groups (A1 to A4) who are due for their second boosters.
“We have the vaccines and like all vaccines these are time-bound. We need a sense of urgency,” the Go Negosyo founder said. “Let the individual decide if he believes he could benefit from the shots. There are already people who want to receive their second shots.”
The Philippines, he said, needs to stay healthy so it can pay for its capital expenditures and the debts it incurred in its pandemic response. The country now owes Php12.6 trillion; this is projected to rise to Php13.2 trillion by the end of the year. “There is nothing wrong with debt, as long as it is invested in capital expenditures that will help propel growth,” he said. “But we need to maintain a good credit rating, and in order to do that, we have to stay healthy,” he said.
Concepcion made the appeal following confirmation by the Department of Health (DOH) of the local transmission of the highly infectious Omicron subvariant BA.2.12.1 According to the Philippine Genome Center, 90 percent of the Covid cases in the Philippines are Omicron. The BA.4 and BA.5, which are also described as highly transmissible and are now considered variants of concern in Europe, have not yet been detected in the country. These two Omicron sublineages, however, are driving up cases in South Africa, a country whose experience with the pandemic closely mirrors that of the Philippines.
There are currently some 90 million doses of the existing formulation of the Covid-19 vaccine available, sourced from donations, the private sector and those bought by the government. Concepcion believes that the most cost-effective and efficient way of using these will be to give them to those who are already willing.
“We have to remove the remaining barriers so that we can put these vaccines into the arms of people who believe they need them,” he said. Among these barriers is a priority group-based system, which restricts the administration of the vaccines to specific groups. Another barrier is rising complacency among the population given current low-risk levels.
“It’s not like people are scrambling to get vaccinated – they’re not. So why are we still imposing priority groups today? We are applying solutions that made sense when vaccines were scarce. We have so much supply today,” said Concepcion. As of May 17, boostering rates have stalled at a little over 13 million. More than 45 million Filipinos have already completed their primary doses.
The country’s Food and Drug Administration has already made its recommendations for the second booster shots. The DOH, meanwhile, is awaiting final recommendations from the Health Technology Assessment Council (HTAC) before starting to administer second boosters, but only for senior citizens and health care workers.
Concepcion had earlier appealed to the HTAC to adopt the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control which, he believes, can address the excess supply of millions of Covid vaccines, speed up booster uptake, and head off possible surges in infection that could come with the entry of new Covid variants. In the US, second boosters can be given to people 50 years and older, and those 12 and older who are immunocompromised because they are believed to be more likely to suffer severe illness from Covid.
The extra shot is believed to reinforce immunity levels that would have declined months after the first booster shot. Although the primary and first booster doses are still effective though decreased, people over 50 are likely to suffer more severe outcomes, thus necessitating a fourth, or second booster, dose.
During a meeting organized by Go Negosyo last May 16, medical doctors warned of long Covid, where lingering effects such as prolonged muscle and joint pain, result in a decrease in quality of life and reduced productivity. Experts in public health and policy also noted that delays in implementing second boosters can cause logjams further down the line as mass vaccinations cannot be expected to immediately happen following the issuance of guidelines. “By that time and if a new variant causes more infections, it would have been too late and we would have a sick population,” said Concepcion.
He explained that the Philippines cannot afford any further losses in productivity, either through heightened alert levels or workers unable to return to work. “We are in a situation where business remains fragile,” he said. “We are feeling the brunt of the Ukraine-Russia conflict, with spiraling commodity prices. The risk of stagflation is much higher when goods become so expensive that consumers cannot afford to buy and then growth does not happen,” he said.
“While the Philippines is in a very good spot when it comes to infection levels, we must remember how we reached this point: our wall of immunity has been strengthened because of vaccinations,” said Concepcion.