Faster rollout of booster shots urged amid new coronavirus variants

A woman gets a booster shot at an elementary school in Marikina City, Nov. 25, 2021. — PHILIPPINE STAR/ MICHAEL VARCAS

By Revin Mikhael D. Ochaveand Luz Wendy T. Noble, Reporters

THE DISTRIBUTION of booster doses of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) vaccines should be accelerated in order to prevent new variants from driving another surge that may derail economic recovery, experts said.

Steven T. Cua, Philippine Amalgamated Supermarkets Association president, told BusinessWorld via mobile phone message last week that the group’s member companies and their employees are being encouraged to get their COVID-19 booster shots as soon as possible.

“I am heavily campaigning to all our employees to get their booster shots. With P2 trillion in loans to partly address this pandemic with 27 million doses of vaccine about to expire and with such a small fraction of the population availing of booster shots, this can hardly be described as a situation (that has been) well handled,” Mr. Cua said.   

Previous surges have been driven by COVID-19 variants, such as Delta and Omicron. New recombinant variants such as Omicron XE are being blamed for recent surges in other countries.

Mr. Cua said these new variants are a threat since they may hurt the retail sector’s recovery from the pandemic.    

“(New COVID-19 variants) most definitely will (be a threat). The road to recovery has been sidetracked time and again. The solution is right before us for the taking but the government and citizenry are failing to comprehend what it takes to move ourselves forward,” Mr. Cua said.   

ING Bank N.V. Manila Senior Economist Nicholas Antonio T. Mapa noted how previous surges necessitated the imposition of tighter restrictions. He said another COVID-19 surge could dampen both consumer and business sentiment and eliminate the gains from the economy’s gradual reopening.

“The economic recovery will be best maximized with lower levels of restrictions (as this allows the free flow of people and commerce) while virus mitigation also helps bolster business and consumer sentiment,” Mr. Mapa said in an e-mail.

The government is targeting 7-9% economic growth this year, after the 5.7% expansion in 2021.

The ASEAN+3 Macroeconomic Research Office (AMRO) last week said the biggest threat to the Philippines’ recovery is a possible resurgence in COVID-19 infections. Health experts have recently warned of a surge in COVID-19 cases after the May elections, citing the “waning immunity” of many vaccinated Filipinos who have not received a booster shot.

The Department of Health (DoH) has said only 11.8 million out of 45 million Filipinos who are eligible for booster shots have received the additional COVID-19 vaccine dose.

Philippine Retailers Association (PRA) President Rosemarie B. Ong said via mobile phone message that the government should urge people to take their booster shots as soon as possible and to continue to adhere to health protocols.

“Just like any variant, once (these variants) spread, they will be a threat. However, let us remain hopeful that this will not reach our country. Let’s push for more people to avail of the booster shots,” Ms. Ong said.

Mr. Cua said businesses must start “requiring their employees to get their booster shots.”

“The solution is still within our reach. It isn’t too late yet but we (need to) get our act together on this,” he added.   

Asian Institute of Management economist John Paolo R. Rivera said the government should also speed up the vaccination rollout while COVID-19 infections are currently low.

“The new surge is always possible given new variants. We should have learned from the past two years that it is best to be preventive than reactive,” Mr. Rivera said in a Viber message.

“It’s a choice of getting vaccinated/boosted with compliance with minimum health standards or procrastinate vaccination with a relaxed safety protocol at the expense of the economy, at the expense of jobs,” he added.

The DoH data also showed 65.9 million Filipinos have completed their vaccine doses as of March 30. This was below the government’s target to fully inoculate 77 million Filipinos by the end of March.

The Food and Drug Administration last week approved the second booster dose of the COVID-19 vaccine for the elderly, immunocompromised individuals, and frontline health workers.

“This second booster dose shall be given at least four months after the first booster. For moderately and severely immunocompromised patients, the second booster could be given earlier subject to the attending physician’s assessment,” the Health department said in a statement.