Why wouldn’t Tony Leachon stop talking? Because he’s not getting answers. The physician and health reform advocate may have been removed as special adviser to the National Task Force Against COVID-19 in June, but he continues to speak out on matters concerning the pandemic, in the process getting under the government’s skin.
Approaching Christmas week, shortly before a killer cop stole the thunder from the issue, Leachon wanted to know why the government appeared to be giving priority to a vaccine maker that, unlike others, has yet to publicize sufficient data on its product’s efficacy and safety. He voiced a question now top of mind among Filipinos convinced that their hopes and fears are centered on that tiny dose of salvation called the COVID-19 vaccine.
Yet, ever unhelpful, Malacañang mouthpiece Harry Roque said President Duterte had been constantly swearing at Leachon — “Daming beses na po kayong namura” — but that these scathing remarks were edited out of his boss’ aired speeches. Roque also quoted Mr. Duterte as saying that Leachon was merely shooting his mouth off because he wanted a government job.
Leachon denied he was seeking a Cabinet post. More to the point, he said the question remained: Why would the government purchase 25 million doses of China’s Sinovac if the manufacturer has yet to show the vaccine was safe and effective after human trials?
Consider the costs for the required two doses, per Sen. Sonny Angara’s office: Sinovac, P3,629.50; AstraZeneca, P610; Novavax, P366; Pfizer–BioNTech, P2,379; Moderna, P3,904-P4,504. The latest on Sinovac from trials in Brazil and Turkey is that it’s more than 50 percent and 91 percent effective, respectively. But other information has been withheld, leading a clinical trials expert, Dr. Eric Topol, to declare that the lack of transparency “is totally unacceptable.”
Here is where we’re at in this stage of the pandemic, when a postholiday surge of infection is imminent and a coronavirus variant bids well to stalk the planet: Apart from dribs and drabs, the government has not explained its vaccination program to an anxious citizenry. Carlito Galvez, chief implementer of the COVID-19 response and “vaccine czar,” has said that vaccines requiring extremely low storage temperatures (Pfizer) may be given to residents of urban areas, and those requiring higher temperatures (Sinovac, etc.) to those living in “geographically isolated and disadvantaged areas.” There is no information on yet-nonexistent storage capacities, transport capabilities, specific priority recipients, vaccine administrators, funding, fees, role of local government units, etc., etc.
Elsewhere in Asia, in Singapore, for example, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a nationwide broadcast on Dec. 14 that, among others: his government had approved the Pfizer vaccine; it expected to start receiving the shots by yearend; the vaccine would be given for free on a voluntary basis, and administered first to healthcare workers and the elderly, including himself, “to show you … that we believe the vaccines are safe.” And his government expected to have enough vaccines for everyone by the third quarter of 2021.
And how is the Philippines faring? As early as July 31, Mr. Duterte announced he had a vaccine — “Meron akong bakuna” — and made a startling commitment: “I promise you, by the grace of God, I hope by December, we would be back to normal.” But things are not back to normal even as December is running out and the new year comes frighteningly close. There is yet no vaccine for the general public and none is foreseen to be within reach even in the first half of 2021.
Everything has so far been yada-yada, with Foreign Secretary Teddyboy Locsin touting cozy chats with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that supposedly could have led to the Philippines’ acquisition of the Pfizer vaccine by January, had not some official—Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, it turned out—“dropped the ball.”
Ambassador to the US Babe Romualdez has since said he might have been partly to blame in not sufficiently impressing urgency on Duque. (Probably so, given that one of Duque’s latest official acts was being photographed measuring the distance between people at BGC with a ruler.) And Locsin, despite making a case for Duque’s ineptitude and his and Romualdez’s efforts to do Galvez’s job, has since said he did not mean for the health chief to be axed.
Now the President, by his own claim speaking frankly, has said that almost all soldiers have received the Chinese vaccine Sinopharm. How did this happen and who authorized it, if the local Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve any of the vaccines for local use?
Unless Malacañang thinks the FDA is just for testing liver spread?
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