Global stock markets rose on news Pfizer was close to perfecting a vaccine against the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), which has infected more than 52 million people worldwide and killed nearly 1.3 million, most of them in the United States.

The global economy loses an average of $375 billion every month until a vaccine is found, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). It is projecting the availability of an initial two billion doses by the end of 2021.

The world awaits an effective and safe vaccine as countries race to develop a shot to fight a viral disease, which originated from China last year. The objective is for people to return to their normal lives, and travel and socialize without fear of contracting the virus.

There are about 150 vaccines being developed and almost two dozen were tested in people as early as five months ago, but there is really no guarantee a vaccine would be successfully developed, mass produced and made commercially available soon.

Last week’s announcement by Pfizer was a breakthrough. The American pharmaceutical giant claimed its vaccine, developed with German partner BioNTech SE, was more than 90 percent effective in preventing infection, making it the first successful candidate vaccine from a large-scale stage 3 clinical trial.

Russia, not to be outdone, announced days later its Sputnik V vaccine was 92 percent effective in stopping an infection based on its own interim trial results. 

Moscow was rushing to keep pace with American and British drugmakers to develop an anti-Covid vaccine. China is also expected to make an announcement soon.

However, clinical trials in the Philippines have yet to begin for candidate vaccines from Russia and China. The WHO has been working closely with various countries to ensure equal access to the vaccine once it becomes available through Covax, a global initiative for equitable vaccine distribution.

The Philippines has allocated P10 billion under its proposed P4.5-trillion national budget for 2021 to procure 50 million doses of a vaccine for 25 million Filipinos, based on the Philippine National Vaccine Roadmap (PNVR).

The vaccine plan was unveiled by retired general Carlito Galvez, the country’s vaccine czar, as Pfizer and Russia’s wealth fund separately announced the potential development of anti-Covid vaccines.

He said the World Bank (WB) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) had promised to provide standby funds to procure extra vaccines.

President Rodrigo Duterte, in a recent meeting with his pandemic response team, said he would ask the finance secretary to borrow $300 million for the vaccines.

Almost 11 months after the deadly outbreak, the Duterte administration’s response to the coronavirus disease was to wait for a vaccine, apart from imposing the world’s longest and strictest lockdowns that ruined what used to be one of Asia’s fastest growing economies. 

The economy plunged into recession, the first time in three decades, as it contracted for three successive quarters and unemployment rose to record level.

There were some signs the economy was bouncing back as the government allowed further re-opening of businesses, travel and other economic activities.

But to rely solely on a vaccine to return to normal was a foolish idea. The promise of a vaccine next year was also raising false hopes as there was still a lot to be done to ensure a safe and effective shot.

Galvez said the government had been focusing on at least 17 candidate vaccines and negotiating with various governments and pharmaceutical companies to gain access to a successful vaccine, which he expected to arrive by the second quarter of 2021.

He also said the country could realistically hope to get hold of a vaccine by the end of 2021 as wealthier countries would have earlier access to the vaccine.

He said the government’s procurement laws prohibited any advance payment to companies to ensure supply of anti-Covid doses, making it difficult to make reservations for a vaccine.

The president has so much faith that the Philippines would get vaccines from a Chinese pharmaceutical company, Sinovac Biotech, which has applied for clinical trials in the country.

But Sinovac’s clinical trials in Brazil were suspended briefly after the death of a trial volunteer. There were also safety issues on Sinovac’s vaccine as its efficacy still needs to be firmly established.

China has been developing four vaccines but results of human trials, including outside China, remained inconclusive.

China’s health ministry is still awaiting trial data similar to what Pfizer and Russia’s Sputnik V had released.

Hundreds of thousands of Chinese as well as people in South American countries have been injected with one of four Chinese vaccine candidates under policies known as emergency-use authorization.

But there were no conclusive results showing the vaccines were safe and effective.

None of the four Chinese vaccines were supported by the WHO and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) working for global access to Covid-19 vaccines even after Beijing joined Covax.

Apart from lack of data, there could also be risk bias involving subjects injected with the candidate vaccines, some researchers said.

If there were safety concerns on Chinese vaccines, there were also some issues involving some of the Western-developed vaccines, like the United Kingdom’s AstraZeneca, which has offered to sell its product without profit.

Galvez said AstraZeneca was making available its vaccine for $5 per shot or $10 for a minimum of two shots, or less than P500 per person.

AstraZenaca had initial problems in human trials in South Africa after some side effects were observed in a trial subject. Like China’s vaccine, it also resumed trials after a week of suspension in September.

The biggest risk of AstraZeneca was the lack of protection from future product liability claims related to its Covid-19 vaccine in many countries where the company had signed supply agreements, according to Reuters.

This would mean the company could not give a firm assurance its vaccine was safe and effective to use.

The Philippines should not pin its hopes on a vaccine as there are safety and efficacy issues. The government must be more pragmatic about a vaccine that will be made available soon but must find other measures to control the transmission of the disease. Lockdowns have proven to be detrimental to the economy but other science-based approaches must be taken by allowing health professionals take over the pandemic response task force.

The Philippines has more than 400,000 cumulative coronavirus cases and the figure continues to rise. There is real danger the cases would spike as hundreds of thousands of people displaced by successive typhoons crowd temporary shelter areas in several regions on the main island of Luzon.

Initial data from Pfizer and Sputnik V vaccines are great news but it is still premature to celebrate. The world, including the Philippines, must wait for a more conclusive data about the vaccines’ safety and efficacy.

It is not important who will win in the race because any successful vaccine will be a victory for humanity.