No more 'herd immunity'; gov't now eyes 'population protection' vs COVID-19

Pia Gutierrez, ABS-CBN News

Posted at May 26 2021 07:43 PM | Updated as of May 27 2021 02:24 AM

People who were inoculated with Sinovac COVID19 vaccine exit the Marikina Sports Center on May 25, 2021. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News/File

 MANILA — Instead of herd immunity, the Philippines is now eyeing “population protection” against the novel coronavirus before the end of the year, the Department of Health said on Wednesday, amid the presence of more infectious COVID-19 variants. 

“We are shifting to the term 'population protection' through mass immunization kasi po iyong ating herd immunity, marami pong mga kaakibat na mga criteria,” Health Undersecretary Myrna Cabotaje said during a televised public briefing.

(We are shifting to the term 'population protection' through mass immunization because herd immunity has a lot of attached criteria.)

“We are considering the variant,” she added. 

“Herd immunity” usually refers to continuous protection, said Cabotaje, who is chairperson of the National Vaccinations Operations Center. 

Experts remain uncertain about whether or not booster shots are needed to maintain a vaccine's efficacy, and whether vaccines can work against COVID-19 variants, she said. 

Video courtesy of PTV

Malacañang earlier said that the government is targeting “population protection” by Nov. 27 in Metro Manila and 4 surrounding provinces – an area government calls NCR Plus. According to the DOH, this means minimizing hospitalization and deaths from COVID-19.

“We prevent hospitalization. We prevent and minimize deaths by prioritizing,” Cabotaje said.

“And the bigger the population that is vaccinated, we have population protection, so hindi magkakahawaan. Kung may magkahawaan man, this will be very mild."

(And the bigger the population that is vaccinated, we have population protection, there will be no transmission If there is transmission, this will be very mild.)

Philippine authorities earlier said that they target to vaccinate up to 70 million Filipinos this year to achieve herd immunity against COVID-19.

However, due to global vaccine supply issues, the government is now looking to vaccinate 50 to 60 percent of the country’s 108 million population, with special focus in the NCR Plus area, said Cabotaje. 

“Ang ating tina-target will be based on our global supply. So alam naman natin na may konting problema ngayon sa merkado because of the surging cases in India, tapos nasunog pa,” Cabotaje said. 

(Our target will be based on our global supply. We know that there is a bit of problem in the market right now because of the surging cases in India, where there was a fire.)

India, is wrestling with currently the world's worst COVID-19 outbreak. In January, a deadly fire hit the headquarters of the Serum Institute of India, the world’s biggest vaccine maker. 

“We were looking before at targeting 70 million na Filipinos by end of this year or early next year,” recalled Cabotaje. 

“Medyo ni-refocus natin ito at ang target natin ay about 50 to 60 percent, naka-concentrate iyan sa NCR Plus, para mas mapabilis – mass vaccination, population protection in geographic setting. So naka-limit sa certain geographic areas.”

(We refocused this a bit and our target is now 50 to 60 percent, which is concentrated in NCR Plus, to speed up our mass vaccination, population protection in geographic setting. It is limited to certain geographic areas.)

However, the country may still be able to reach its initial target of inoculating 70 million if “the supply will be good and the global market will improve,” she said. 

The Philippines has taken delivery of some 8.279 million COVID-19 shots. Authorities have administered at least 4.305 million of these doses nationwide as of May 24. 

The vaccination drive, which began March 1, currently covers the top 3 priority groups, namely, health workers, the elderly, and people with health risks who are more prone to developing severe COVID-19. 

The inoculation of the next 2 priority groups—essential workers and indigents—is expected to start in June.