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What's Next for the Philippines' Vaccine Search? (Russia Says It Has One)

Duterte's aim: a 'COVID-free December'
by Joel Guinto
Aug 12, 2020
Photo/s: Wikimedia Commons / PCOO
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Russian President Vladimir Putin shocked the world on Tuesday with his claim that scientists in his country had developed the first known COVID-19 vaccine, Sputnik V. The night before, President Rodrigo Duterte said he accepted Moscow's offer to cooperate on a vaccine, even offering to be among the first to be vaccinated to ensure its safety.

Vaccine development is both a race among countries and pharmaceutical companies to be the first to market, and a public health process to ensure that it is effective and safe, hence the need for phased human trials, Dr. Nina Gloriani, the head of the Philippines' vaccine search committee told reportr.

Officials in Manila have pointed to a vaccine as among the most potent solutions to the public health crisis that spawned the first economic recession in decades and altered how millions go about their daily lives. On Tuesday, the country tallied nearly 140,000 COVID-19 cases, surpassing Indonesia last week to lead Southeast Asia with the most number of infections.

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Without a vaccine on top of a host of containment measures, millions will need to stay at home for work and study, wear face masks and face shields when running errands and will need to bear with plastic barriers during dinner dates. Alcoholic drinks? There's a two-bottle limit and no later than midnight.

Here's what we know so far about about the search for a COVID-19 vaccine:

Who has a vaccine ready for use on humans?

Russia, according to Moscow. Putin said his daughter took part in the trials that showed Sputnik V helped develop "sustainable" immunity among those who took it. Other countries, including the U.S. and China, are also their own, some on the third and last stage of human trials.

One trial among more than 1,000 adults in Britain found that a vaccine induced "strong antibody and T cell immune responses" against the coronavirus, according to the Lancet Medical Journal. A separate trial in China involving more than 500 people showed most had developed widespread antibody immune response.

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US biotech firm Moderna's vaccine induced a robust immune response and prevented the coronavirus from replicating in the noses and lungs of monkeys, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. This is seen as particularly crucial in preventing it from being transmitted onward to others.

Will the Philippines get vaccines from Russia?

Duterte's office issued a statement ahead of Putin's revelation, saying that the Philippines "stands ready to work with Russia on clinical trials, vaccine supply and production and other areas deemed practicable." It did not specifically mention procurement.

Also, Manila will "continue to work with partners across the world to ensure access to safe vaccine," according to the statement.

Is Russia's vaccine safe?

The World Health Organization said any WHO stamp of approval on a COVID-19 vaccine candidate would require a rigorous safety data review, after Russia announced Tuesday it had approved a vaccine. Sputnik V, made by Gemaleya, is listed by the WHO as only being in Phase 1 trials. There are three to four phases depending on the country. The Philippines has four, according to Gloriani.

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A total of 168 candidate vaccines are being worked on around the world, according to a WHO overview published Tuesday. Of those, 28 have progressed to the various phases of being tested on humans, of which six are the furthest ahead, having reached Phase 3 of clinical trials.

What is the Philippines doing to secure a vaccine?

Human trials are sheduled later this year for at least five vaccine candidates from China and Taiwan, according to Gloriani. The Philippines is also part of the World Health Organization's solidarity trials, which will move faster since it involves simultaneous tests in multiple countries.

Manila is also part of the global vaccine alliance COVAX and committed to secure at least 3 million doses. The Department of Health also set aside at least P2.4 billion to buy vaccines once they are available.

The Philippines, through the Land Bank of the Philippines and Development Bank of the Philippines, will buy enough vaccines for an initial 20 million people. At two doses each and at $10 per dose, the vaccination program could cost $400 million or P20 billion, Finance Sec. Carlos Dominguez said.

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What if Russia wants to bring the vaccine to the Philippines?

Should Russia apply for a license to distribute Sputnik V locally, Phase 3 trials could start by October if the papers are filed in August, Gloriani told Teleradyo on late Tuesday.

Clinical trials last three to six months, that's a faster timeline already given the urgency of COVID-19. Some vaccines take years to test to ensure safety, she told reportr.

Why do trials take long?

The tests need to ensure that the vaccines are safe, have no side effects and develop immunity to the virus, Gloriani said.

Successful human trials abroad also don't take away the need for local testing. "People have different biological responses. It's like disease, some are more susceptible compared to others."

Can I take part in human trials?

Gloriani said trial guidelines will be published soon. However, the priority will be health frontliners and those whose line of work expose them to the virus. The trials will also be held in areas with high infections.

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Imagine drawing a ring around a virus hotspot, those inside the ring will be part of the trials, which will be constantly monitored, she said.

The trials will prioritize those who are healthy and aged 18 to 59, Gloriani said. The elderly will be included later, carefully grouped based on their health and existing co-morbidities, she said. Duterte is 75.

Will the vaccine be effective?

Gloriani said vaccines produced during the pandemic could have 50% to 60% effectiveness. "This is a pandemic vaccine, we don't know the efficacy rate yet."

Is the vaccine the only medical solution?

No, but Philippine officials see it as the most potent. Finance Sec. Carlos Dominguez said last week: "The COVID crisis will be a drawn out series of battles and the war will only be conclusively won with the development and wide availability of a vaccine."

Vaccines develop immunity towards a virus. For those who have it, there are drugs that help treat symptoms. Human trials are scheduled in the Philippines for the Japan-made anti-flu drug, Avigan.

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When will a vaccine be available in the Philippines?

According to the President in at least two of his late night addresses to the nation, by the end of the year. The government is working on it, he said.

"So ang akin na lang, hintay na lang kayo. Kaunti na lang talaga. By December, sabi ko, in the fullness of God’s time, we will have a, hopefully, a COVID-free December and we can enjoy this Christmas season," he said on Aug. 9.