DOJ chief says not yet time for 'bubbles' for vaccinated vs COVID-19, cites equal protection

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 24 2021 08:49 PM

 A resident is vaccinated against COVID-19 during the Office of the Vice President’s (OVP) Vaccine Express initiative at the Manggahan High School in Pasig City on August 21, 2021. Charlie Villegas, OVP/File
A resident is vaccinated against COVID-19 during the Office of the Vice President’s (OVP) Vaccine Express initiative at the Manggahan High School in Pasig City on August 21, 2021. Charlie Villegas, OVP/File


MANILA — It’s not yet time to give vaccinated persons greater mobility and access amid the lingering pandemic, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said Tuesday as he cited the equal protection clause and still limited supply of COVID-19 shots. 

His statement came in response to presidential adviser for entrepreneurship Joey Concepcion’s proposal to create “safer bubbles” in the private sector to boost economic activity.

Concepcion had suggested establishing COVID-19 safe zones by allowing only vaccinated individuals in public areas such as malls, restaurants and other business establishments in the National Capital Region once it reaches 50 percent population protection.

But some groups have raised concerns over possible discrimination against those who do not have access to the vaccines.

GUEVARRA’S VIEW

“Without prejudging the legal issue, the proper time to push for the proposal is when the vaccines have become readily available to anyone anywhere and the majority of the people have been fully vaccinated,” Guevarra said in a message to reporters.

“I understand that the objective behind PA Concepcion's proposal to give vaccinated persons greater mobility and access is to boost the revival of certain sectors of the economy. The idea is good but may be challenged as violative of the equal protection clause by those who have remained unvaccinated but are nonetheless complying with mandatory health protocols,” he explained.

The equal protection clause under the Constitution prohibits making classifications unless if based on substantial distinctions that are relevant to the issue.

The Integrated Bar of the Philippines has cited the same possible ground to challenge segregating the vaccinated from the unvaccinated.

The Commission on Human Rights also expressed concern that the proposal might lead to “undue discrimination.”

“Maraming rason kung bakit di nagpapabakuna, meron na bang bakuna? I respect that but…rights must not be sacrificed because there are other ways... 'Pag gustong magpabakuna, dapat mayroong bakuna," said CHR commissioner Gwen Pimentel-Gana. 

(There are many reasons why people are not getting vaccinated, are there vaccines available? I respect that... but rights must not be sacrificed because there are other ways... If people want to get vaccinated, there should be vaccines.)

No known case has yet been filed in the Philippines challenging cases of discrimination due to non-vaccination against the virus. Currently, commercial establishments are giving perks to vaccinated individuals in a bid to encourage more to get the shots.

Guevarra had previously said the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) will not be making any distinctions between vaccinated and unvaccinated persons in terms of mobility because “many people in the NCR have not been vaccinated.”

As of August 8, data from the ABS-CBN COVID-19 vaccine tracker shows almost 4 million people in Metro Manila have been fully inoculated while more than 5.2 million have received their first dose. Most vaccines require 2 doses.

In the Philippines, more than 13 million have been fully vaccinated while almost 17.5 million people have been partially inoculated.

 ‘MICRO-HERD IMMUNITY’

Concepcion based his proposal on the concept of micro-herd immunity — that if a building has an 80% vaccination rate among its tenants and employees, it should be allowed to increase its capacity from 50 percent to 80 percent.

Herd immunity means a society is protected from COVID-19 by having enough people who can’t get the coronavirus and pass it on. This requires inoculating 70 percent of the population.

But challenges to the vaccine rollout in the Philippines, which experts estimate could reach mid-2022 before herd immunity can be achieved, forced authorities to shift to “population protection,” lowering the target vaccination rate to between 50 and 60 percent.

NEW UK STUDY: HERD IMMUNITY DIFFICULT TO ACHIEVE

But a new study from the University of Oxford released last week suggests it might be “difficult” to achieve herd immunity with the presence of the Delta variant.

Sarah Walker, professor of medical statistics and epidemiology at the Nuffield Department of Medicine at the University of Oxford told ANC’s Rundown Tuesday that based on their study of 400,000 cases in the UK, the viral load in vaccinated individuals who contract COVID-19 are just as high as those in unvaccinated persons.

A high viral load is linked to a higher possibility of transmitting the virus.

“What this new data suggests is that at least with Delta, even if you’re vaccinated, you can get it. It won’t make you very sick but you can still pass it on. Which means the idea that you will somehow protect the rest of society is probably not gonna work,” she said.

“What policymakers need to really be aware of is that people who get it (COVID) after vaccination can almost certainly pass it on. So no policy should be based on an assumption that if you’re vaccinated, you cannot give it to somebody else because that is just wrong,” she added.

The study compared the effectiveness of the Pfizer vaccine to the AstraZeneca brand which the University of Oxford helped develop.

The study found that while Pfizer vaccines had a much higher efficacy rate than AstraZeneca after the second dose, Pfizer’s effectivity rate waned faster such that both vaccines had the same effectivity rate 4 to 5 months after the second dose.

No data is available yet on up to when the vaccines will remain effective against the Delta variant and whether booster shots are needed. But Walker, who is the chief investigator and academic lead for the UK’s National COVID-19 Infection Survey, stressed the importance of getting two doses of the vaccines.

“I would stress that even though people with Delta after getting vaccinated have high levels of virus in their nose and throat and do have symptoms, they still are not getting hospitalized or dying or anything like the same rate. And so as an individual, you’re still getting really, really good protection against severe disease. You just need to be aware that you may be passing it on to others,” she explained.

“At the moment, the biggest risk against COVID is not being vaccinated,” she added.

Walker said the positivity rate in the UK at the moment is just over 1 percent or 1 out of 100 people and there are very few people in the hospital.

As of August 22, 61.59% of the people in the UK have been fully vaccinated while 8.66% are waiting for their second dose, based on data from Our World in Data, a website run by Global Change Data Lab, a UK-based non-profit organization.

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