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[ANALYSIS] A 3rd COVID-19 vaccine for the PH: Effective but morally controversial

Earlier this week, AstraZeneca (AZ) and the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom released interim data that suggests that their COVID-19 vaccine, called AZD1222, was effective in Phase 3 clinical trials involving about 12,000 participants. No serious side effects were associated with the vaccine, suggesting that it is safe for distribution to the public. 

The company tested two different ways of giving the vaccine. In the first standard approach used in Brazil, participants experienced 62% effectiveness when two doses of the vaccine were administered. However, in a novel approach pioneered in the United Kingdom that apparently occurred because of an unexpected dosing mistake, if half a dose was first given followed by a full dose later, then the effectiveness rose to 90%. Both doses were administered one month apart. 

Though these numbers are lower than the effectiveness of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which are 95% effective, these numbers would still make the vaccine effective in slowing and mitigating the pandemic. No serious side effects other than the typical aches and pains associated with common vaccinations were associated with AZD1222, suggesting that it is safe. 

Moreover, it looks like this AZ vaccine protected individuals against hospitalizations and severe cases of COVID-19, and prevented the asymptomatic transmission of the disease. These characteristics of the vaccine would help public health officials to protect the healthcare infrastructure of our country. 

For the Philippines, the AZ vaccine would be beneficial in two ways. First, unlike the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, this vaccine can be stored in a standard refrigerator that can hold a temperature between 2°C to 8°C. This would simplify procurement and distribution throughout the archipelago. 

Second, this vaccine would be cheaper than its competitors. AZ has announced that it will sell its vaccine at cost to developing and resource-poor countries. At present this would amount to about $3 (P150) per dose or $6 (P300) per Filipino. This would be in contrast to the Pfizer and Modern vaccines which would cost between $10 and $30 (P500 and P1,500) per dose or $20 to $60 (P1,000 and P3,000) per Filipino. However, these prices are list prices for these vaccines, subject to governmental negotiations which can significantly lower the price point.

Despite these advantages, however, the AZ vaccine is morally controversial, because it was developed using human cells called HEK293 that were obtained from the body of an aborted female fetus from the Netherlands. The Catholic bishops have called upon the government to concentrate our procurement and distribution efforts on COVID-19 vaccines that have not been tainted by any links to abortion. 

For many people of conscience, myself included, and for many other Filipinos with whom I have spoken, the use of the HEK293 fetal cells alone would make us reject the AZ vaccine in favor of the more effective, though more expensive, and non-controversial vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. One individual told me that he would never use a vaccine that in his mind required the sacrifice of a human baby girl to produce, especially when there are other more effective alternatives available on the market.

Finally, it is not clear when the AZ vaccine will become available for distribution to the Philippines. The Phase 3 clinical trial is still ongoing and the company will have to determine the most effective vaccine dosing strategy for people of all age brackets. However, AZ has already committed 300 million doses to the WHO COVAX facility that will distribute vaccines worldwide. The Philippines is part of COVAX and is expected to receive enough doses next year to vaccinate about 3% of our population from the facility. –

Reverend Fr. Nicanor Austriaco is Visiting Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Santo Tomas, and an OCTA Research Fellow.