Experts advisory group for COVID vaccine distribution proposed

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    THE Philippine Foundation for Vaccination yesterday recommended the establishment of a National Immunization Technical Advisory Group (NITAG) to help in the regulatory approval and distribution of vaccines for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), once these are available.

    Dr. Lulu Bravo Bravo, the foundation’s director, said the NITAG can take the place of a proposed vaccine czar and will be composed of a group of multi-disciplinary scientists and physicians like epidemiologists, pediatricians, and microbiologists, among others.

    In a virtual briefing hosted by Malacañang, Bravo said decisions will on the distribution of vaccines be made by a group of experts.

    “When you make a decision, it is a decision of a whole group of people, not just one person, that is the essence of this. This is a big decision that is done by real scientists and experts,” she said.

    Bravo made the suggestion following the call of Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto for President Duterte to appoint a “vaccine czar” who will ensure that the Philippines has access to COVID-19 vaccines.

    Several countries are developing vaccines, including the US, Britain, Russia, and China.

    The government already has four czars appointed to various programs aimed at addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, namely Vivencio “Vince” Dizon as chief testing czar, Baguio City Mayor Benjamin Magalong as chief tracing czar, Public Works Secretary Mark Villar as chief isolation czar, and Health Undersecretary Leopoldo “Bong” Vega as chief treatment czar. All four czars are under the National Task Force Against COVID-19 (NTF) led by Chief Implementer Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr.

    Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said Bravo should make a formal presentation of her recommendation, which he would forward to the President.

    Roque also said Recto’s suggestion is “very well taken” but said the President named a vaccine czar two months ago. He declined to name the person, saying the individual prefers to wait for the President to formally appoint him or announce his appointment to the public. He said the individual said Duterte might have forgotten about it.

    Roque acknowledged the advantages of having a vaccine czar who can oversee the importation and distribution of the vaccine in the country as well the setting up of a cold storage facility recommended by China, which will be used to house the vaccines it would manufacture and distribute to the Philippines.

    He said, in the meantime, the Department of Health (DOH), which is well experienced in the handling and distribution of vaccines, can oversee the COVID-19 vaccine importation and storage.

    Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said the DOH welcomes having a focal person in charge of COVID-19 vaccines.

    “As we have seen, we have faster and better facilitated our responses because there is this specific person overseeing and providing this guidance to the strategies we have,” she said.

    Ambassador to China Chito Sta. Romana last week said China has reaffirmed its commitment to prioritize the Philippines in its distribution of COVID-19 vaccines once it is available.

    Sta. Romana said the vaccine, despite the lack of an official approval, has been given to Chinese frontliners.

    Bravo said that as of October 20, there were 156 potential COVID-19 vaccines being developed around the world, and which are at the pre-clinical trial stage or the stage which is not yet for testing on humans.

    She said at least 10 potential vaccines are already in Phase 3, or the last stage of clinical trials, which can last for six months to one year, while six other candidate vaccines are being used for “emergency” in some countries.

    Roque said the President recently inquired if he could already test the vaccine that is being “used” by frontliners in China but Health Secretary Francisco Duque III had advised against it.

    He said Duque reminded the President that an approval by the Food and Drug Authority is still needed before a vaccine is allowed to be distributed and used in the country.

    Bravo said she is not aware of any available China-made vaccine.

    The World Health Organization (WHO) has decided to push to December back the start of its Solidarity Trials for Vaccines, instead of late October.

    “By November, they will start the trials in one site, and will be followed by clinical trials in the other countries, including the Philippines by December 2020,” Vergeire said.

    The sites of the Solidarity Trials for Vaccines in the Philippines are expected to be disclosed within the week.

    For the Solidarity Trials for Treatment, Vergeire said three of the first four treatments included in the WHO program have been ordered discontinued.

    This after the hydroxychloroquine, lopinavir/ritonavir, and interferon were found to have little or no effect on overall mortality, initiation of ventilation, and duration of hospital stay among COVID-19 patients.

    “The WHO has already removed interferon in the treatment arm of the trials because it was not able to reduce mortality among COVID-19 patients. It was not able to reach its objective,” said Vergeire.

    As for remdesivir, Vergeire said the WHO wants it to be continued despite having been found to have little or no effect on COVID-19 patients.

    “The WHO wanted it continued. They would want more information, more data, and more accurate findings for remdesivir to support the initial results. So we will continue with it,” she said. – With Gerard Naval