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[ANALYSIS] Comparing 2 COVID-19 vaccines for the Philippines

Last week, Pfizer published its initial findings that suggested its COVID-19 vaccine called BNT162b2 is 90% effective. Yesterday, Moderna reported its interim results for its own vaccine candidate called mRNA-1273. This vaccine is injected into people in two doses separated by 28 days. 

How could this second vaccine candidate impact the pandemic in the Philippines?

First, Moderna’s vaccine appears to be more effective than its Pfizer counterpart with a 94.5% effectiveness. More importantly, this new vaccine prevented any severe cases of COVID-19. None of the 11 severe cases of COVID-19 that were recorded in the clinical trial had received the vaccine. This is important because public health officials are always concerned that COVID-19 patients will overwhelm our hospitals, especially our ICU beds. It appears that the Moderna vaccine would minimize the patient load for our medical frontliners. 

The worst reactions to the Moderna vaccine included fatigue, muscle ache, joint pain, headaches, and pain. These are typical of vaccines that are injected and are not unexpected. Together, these results suggest that this mRNA vaccine is both safe and effective. It is a second tool in our fight against the pandemic. 

Incidentally, why is the high effectiveness rate of the vaccine so important for us to consider? Because the higher the effectiveness of the vaccine, the fewer number of people we would have to inoculate to achieve the herd immunity that is required to end the pandemic. When a city has herd immunity, there are enough vaccinated persons living in the city that the virus struggles to find another person to infect. The virus is starved to death and the pandemic fizzles out. 

For the NCR, which has a population of about 13 million people, we would need to vaccinate only 9.6 million with a vaccine with 90% effectiveness to reach herd immunity and 9.1 million with a vaccine with 95% effectiveness. This estimate ignores differences with the population of the NCR and the numbers could be higher or lower in specific LGUs. 

Second, Moderna’s vaccine can be shipped at -20°C and can be stored between 2°C and 8°C for up to 30 days. This will be substantially easier for us to handle here in the Philippines. We can use regular freezer trucks, trucks used to deliver ice cream, to distribute this vaccine to all our barangays and LGUs. We already have the freezers and refrigerators in our hospitals and clinics to store this vaccine for the month that it will take between inoculations of each Filipino. In contrast, the Pfizer vaccine required shipping and storage at super cold temperatures of -70°C, which is the temperature of dry ice. 

However, supply of this vaccine called mRNA-1273 will also be limited in the short term. Moderna plans to manufacture up to 1 billion doses by the end of 2021. However, the United States has already reserved 100 million of these doses with an option for buying 400 million more. At this time, Moderna’s vaccine would be expensive, at a price point of about $50 per Filipino, though the price is being negotiated down around the world. In contrast, the Pfizer vaccine has been priced at around $10 per immunized Filipino.

Once again, however, we can expect that the Philippines should receive some initial doses of this vaccine as part of the COVAX vaccine allocation that should happen by the middle of 2021, though COVAX is still negotiating a supply agreement with Moderna. This would be enough vaccines to inoculate 3% of the Filipino population, which is about 3.5 million people, which is the population of just Quezon City. 

It is exciting and hopeful that we now have two effective vaccines against COVID-19 announced within just a week of each other. There are numerous other vaccine candidates on the way. We can never have too many vaccines because of the enormous challenge of vaccinating the planet. The more we have, the better. – Rappler.com

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