By Henrylito D. Tacio
Photo by Tawat from Shutterstock
When the novel coronavirus was first reported in Wuhan, China in the last week of December 2019, it was called an outbreak. When it spread to other parts of the said country, it became an epidemic. Three months later, when it was already reported in most parts of the world, the United Nations agency declared it a pandemic.
As the numbers of those being infected was unprecedented and deaths surged, medical scientists worldwide were in a tight race against time in finding a vaccine against coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).
Now that there’s a COVID-19 vaccine – in fact, nine of them already – Filipinos are divided on whether to take it or not. Should they allow themselves to be vaccinated by any of the available vaccines?
“Yes,” says Tony Lumactod, who worked at the Ateneo de Davao University. “There is no other way except vaccination. We might be afraid now because of some fears. But eventually, when the vaccine is perfect, I believe all would be willing to submit for vaccination for us to live.”
Ann Jun, the information officer at the Philippine Commission on Women, agrees too. “Being vaccinated could help to slow or stop the transmission or mutation of the virus,” he opines. “It would give our experts and scientists ample time to study and do mitigating works for better and more effective vaccines that could fight other variants that may arise soon.”
Marivic Campeon, who is with the Department of Agriculture’s regional office, is willing to submit herself to be vaccinated as long as her doctor will approve it. “I need to consult my doctor first,” she says.
Others approved of being vaccinated as long as they know where the vaccine comes from being used. “It depends where the vaccine is manufactured,” veteran journalist Inez Magbual says. “I am considering all vaccines but Sinovac,” award-winning radio broadcaster Melly Tenorio emphasizes.
Others are in the “waiting” stage yet. “Wait and see lang ko unless required sa line of work,” says Boboy Recuerdo, a print journalist. Lorna Caraquel-Brody admits she’s for it, “but I won’t be in a hurry; sa middle ko sa queue.”
Of course, some are against vaccination. “God has a better option – nature,” veteran journalist Herbert L. Vego opines. “Nature’s way is to strengthen our immune system.”
No human endeavor can compete with immunization in combating infectious diseases and reducing mortality rates, with the exception of clean, safe drinking water. Already proven and tested, vaccination can prevent several infectious diseases, and there are new vaccines on the horizon with the potential to prevent even more.
In the fight against COVID-19, medical scientists have developed nine vaccines. Three of these vaccines were collaborative efforts of two counties: Pfizer-BioNTech (US-Germany), Janssen (Belgium-US), and Clover (China-Australia).
China has also developed two more vaccines: Sinovac and Sinopharm. The United States develops Moderna and Novavax. The United Kingdom is the creator of AstraZeneca-Oxford, while Russia is the country behind Sputnik V.
How are these vaccines being developed? “Vaccines work by mimicking an infectious agent – viruses, bacteria or other microorganisms that can cause a disease,” explains the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). “This ‘teaches’ our immune system to rapidly and effectively respond against it.”
Traditionally, vaccines have done this by introducing a weakened form of an infectious agent that allows the immune system to build its memory. “This way, our immune system can quickly recognize and fight it before it makes us ill,” UNICEF says. “That’s how some current COVID-19 vaccine candidates are being designed.”
Other potential vaccines being developed also use new approaches: what are called RNA and DNA vaccines. Instead of introducing antigens (a substance that causes the immune system to produce antibodies), RNA, and DNA vaccines give the body the genetic code it needs to allow the immune system to produce the antigen itself.
“The progress in vaccine development so far has been extraordinary, and it is clear that we are now assembling the tools we need to bring the acute phase of the pandemic to an end. But we cannot afford to slow our efforts given the speed with which this pandemic continues to wreak havoc,” said Dr. Richard Hatchett, chief executive officer of Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI).
“The emergence of new variants of COVID-19 puts into sharp focus the need for us to be one step ahead of the virus by continuing to invest in vaccine research and development – specifically for next-generation vaccine candidates and to be ready for strain changes in existing vaccines – to ensure we have the tools to meet the needs of all populations in all countries for the long term,” he added.
CEPI is leading on the COVAX vaccine research and development portfolio. COVAX is the only global initiative working with governments and manufacturers to ensure COVID-19 vaccines are available worldwide to both higher-income and lower-income countries.
“Vaccines don’t save lives, vaccinations do,” declared Dr. Sandra Fryhofer, an American internist who serves as the liaison officer of the American Medical Association (AMA) to the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). “We’ve got to get these vaccines into arms.”
Being vaccinated “is an opportunity of a lifetime and it can save your life,” said Dr. Fryhofer, a member of the AMA Board of Trustees and ACIP’s COVID-19 Vaccine Work Group, adding that current health protocols will still be observed despite vaccination.
“Even after we get vaccinated, we still have to wear our masks and you still have to physically distance,” she points out. “We’ve got to do what’s safe for everybody, but as soon as we get everyone vaccinated, we’ll be closer to getting back to life as normal.”
But the question is: which of the vaccines available are really safe? There are already some reports that some people have died after being vaccinated. Is it really the vaccine that caused the death or something else? The scientists are trying to figure that out.
In the meantime, should you be vaccinated, you need to get a second dose. “The idea behind two separate doses is that the first dose ‘primes’ the immune response and the second dose acts as an amplifier, making the immune response against the virus stronger,” explains Dr. Dave O’Connor, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“Such a strategy is why vaccine manufacturers often design studies to have multiple doses. This doesn’t mean that one dose can’t be effective, but it is impossible to test every combination of doses, timings, routes, and vaccine compositions at once,” he further states.
Dr. Deborah Fuller, professor of microbiology at the University of Washington School of Medicine, also adds, “Administering two doses of COVID-19 vaccines increases the likelihood of achieving maximum prevention of disease and increases the percentage of people vaccinated that develop protective levels of immunity, leading to more durable immunity.”
To be vaccinated or not to be vaccinated, to paraphrase William Shakespeare. Vaccination is a choice. But there are instances where a person may not like it, but he has to submit himself to be immunized because his work requires it.
But Filipinos should bear in mind that the COVID-19 vaccine is not the end-all of the dreaded disease. “We want to remind our people that the COVID-19 vaccine is not a magic pill. We still don’t have sufficient evidence to have that assurance that (people) won’t get infected (after being vaccinated),” Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire was quoted as saying by Philippine Daily Inquirer in an online briefing.
Immunization has been a great public health success story. Nelson Mandela, winner of the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, speaking on vaccines, said: “The lives of millions of children have been saved, millions have the chance of a longer healthier life, a greater chance to learn, to play, to read and write, to move around freely without suffering.”