The government was a bit slow in rolling out its vaccine program. Many countries, including our Asean neighbors Singapore and Indonesia, started vaccinating their people months ahead of us. By the time the first batch of vaccines arrived in the Philippines—1 million doses procured by the state, 1 million donated by China, and 500,000 via the Covax initiative—in March, more than half of Israel’s population had been fully vaccinated.
We all know that the vaccines were meant for the virus first discovered in Wuhan, China. Studies have shown that the protection provided by two doses wanes after six months. Procuring booster shots should be the country’s next priority for us to recover socially and economically from the lingering effects of the pandemic.
Inoculated countries in Europe, North America and the Middle East are now eyeing booster shots, especially those that are experiencing another wave of infections caused by the Delta variant. The Philippines is in a tight race between infections and vaccinations. We are now in the seventh month of our vaccination program, which means those that received the first jabs—our medical frontliners, elderly people, and friends and relatives with comorbidities—are now seeing waning protection and could be vulnerable to Delta and other variants. We don’t want to risk breakthrough infections to these vaccinated citizens.
Are we going to dilly-dally in providing them extra protection?
In a BusinessMirror report on September 10, Iloilo Rep. Janette Garin said the government should prioritize giving the third dose over herd immunity. “The third dose is what’s available now, therefore we should allow LGUs and the private sector to procure [vaccines]. They might be able to save us. Because if you talk about herd immunity—I’m sorry, even if 100 percent [of the people] are vaccinated for two doses there’s no herd immunity to talk about because of the Delta variant.”
We agree with Rep. Garin, a former Health secretary, that the government should let the LGUs and private sector procure Covid vaccines, not just for the first two doses but also for the booster shots. And this should be done immediately. Other countries are already moving to secure additional vaccines for booster administration, which is expected to make supply availability a major issue.
We have experienced delays in past government-initiated procurement of vaccines. On top of that, as Rep. Garin noted, the budget proposal of the Department of Health for next year only categorized the P45-billion Covid-19 booster program under unprogrammed funds, which means it can be funded only if government’s revenue collection exceeds the target.
If the government does not have the money to procure booster shots, the private sector does. Corporations also have a faster turnaround in their procurement systems—they are willing and able. The government only needs to enable them through a policy shift—by allowing corporations to buy vaccines without the need for multi-party agreements.
National Task Force Against Covid-19 Chief Implementer and Vaccine Czar Carlito Galvez Jr. said this is the direction that the country is taking. However, he did not say when this will happen, and if this will also include the procurement of booster shots.
At a media forum on September 15, Rep. Garin and Senator Nancy Binay said the Vaccination Act of 2021, or Republic Act 11525, already covers procurement of vaccines by the private sector and local government units (LGU) for booster shots. They said the government can find ways and employ flexibilities to allow such vaccine purchases once Malacañang decides to do it.
“There is such a thing as Mature Regulatory Agencies with actual trials for booster shots. If Pfizer already has full authorization from the US Food and Drug Administration, this can be used as the basis of the Philippine FDA to give access to the LGUs and the private sector. The Department of Health can serve as the consolidator,” Garin said.
She said the government should not be swayed by the World Health Organization’s guidance against the administration of booster shots. “We are a small country. [The volume of] our third shot for health-care workers and persons with comorbidity is small. This is survival mode and the responsibility of our government is not to the WHO but to our people.”
We sincerely hope that Galvez and the IATF, with continuous prodding from Rep. Garin, Sen. Binay and other like-minded policy-makers and experts will make this policy change fast. With the full and unhindered participation of the private sector, the program for booster shot administration will have a better success rate.