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Why PGH chief volunteered to be first in PH to receive COVID-19 vaccine

By JOANNE RAE M. RAMIREZ, The Philippine STAR Published Mar 04, 2021 5:57 pm

"The best vaccine is the one in your arm."

Thus says neurosurgeon Dr. Gerardo “Gap” Legaspi, medical director of Philippine General Hospital (PGH), who became the “Neil Armstrong” of the vaccination rollout in the Philippines last Monday.

He is the first Filipino to be officially and “legally” inoculated with CoronaVac, the COVID-19 vaccine produced by Sinovac of China. The historic, if you will, jab in his arm came on the heels of a survey by OCTA Research that only 19 percent of Filipinos were willing to be vaccinated and only one in 10 trusted vaccines coming from China.

But there was Gap, who graduated in 1987 from the UP College of Medicine as the outstanding graduate in clinical clerkship, striving to close the gap between vaccine mistrust and confidence. (Following the first jabs, mostly on doctors, another major hospital reportedly ordered 5,000 doses of Sinovac.)

 Dr. Gap Legaspi. Photo by by Mark Chester Uy courtesy of PeopleAsia

Why did he do it? Did he feel like a guinea pig of sorts? Not at all, says Gap, who trained in neurosurgery at the PGH and at the Université Paris-Sud.

First of all, says Gap, the PGH is a “step ahead, always” and had resolved safety issues relating to the Sinovac vaccine way before its arrival. He said PGH scientists had studied the properties of Sinovac and other vaccines like those from Pfizer and Moderna and he believes “all of them save lives.”

Let us keep in mind that if it was approved by the FDA and given Emergency Use Authorization, we can be sure this reached the efficacy level set by the experts,

“The best vaccine is the one in your arm,” he told this writer hours after he received his jab in the ceremonial rollout of the vaccine on the grounds of the PGH. He went to work straight after and said the flu shot he received last November was “more painful.” As this column was being written, Gap said he felt fine, no side effects. Neither was his arm sore. “Parang wala lang.”

Last Sunday, 600,000 doses of the Sinovac vaccine arrived in the country, according to vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr. The Department of Health said that last Monday, 756 individuals got their jabs, with Gap being the first to take the big leap. The DOH said that as of Monday, there were 20 persons who showed adverse reactions that were “common and minor.”

For Gap, it was not really a leap of faith. In January, he had made a public pronouncement that “PGH would consider any vaccine approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as reasonably good.”

“Let us keep in mind that if it was approved by the FDA and given Emergency Use Authorization, we can be sure this reached the efficacy level set by the experts,” he wrote in a letter to those who serve in PGH.

Though he did not know which of the FDA-approved vaccines the government would give PGH, a COVID referral center, Gap said in his letter, “Sa araw na ibibigay na ang bakunang ito sa atin, ako ang unang pipila para magpaturok, anumang bakuna ito.”

He was informed late February it would be Sinovac. Since Sinovac is FDA-approved, he went for it.

“I walk my talk,” says Gap, who once told me he does not operate on a patient unless he is sure the surgery will be 99 percent successful. If it is any comfort to those weighing their options, this first man on the Philippine vaccine moon is a sigurista.

Gap says that according to a reputable study, the Sinovac vaccine gives health care workers (HCWs), who are more exposed to the virus, 55.4 percent protection from mild infection, 78 percent protection from moderate infection and 100 percent protection from severe infection.

He concedes 55.4 percent may not be the gold standard yet for the 10 percent of PGH health care workers who are directly exposed to COVID patients, since even if they have mild symptoms, they cannot go on saving lives.

(According to the study, on which PGH affixed its logo, for the general population, the Sinovac vaccine’s protection from mild symptoms is from 65 to 91 percent. For AstraZeneca, which did not make a distinction between HCWs and the general population, the vaccine is 62 percent effective in the prevention of mild infection and 100 percent effective in preventing severe infection.)

Gap revealed that last Monday, 126 doctors and nurses from PGH were inoculated and that he respects the decision of those who opted not to get the vaccine.

According to the study, Sinovac may be administered only to those between 18 to 59 years old. Gap is 59 and Galvez is 57. The AstraZeneca vaccine may be given to those 18 years old and above, including senior citizens.

My first cousin Dr. Kevin Reyes, a frontliner himself, said in a heartbeat that he would have himself vaccinated with the Sinovac dose.

 Dr. Kevin Reyes: Ready and willing to be vaccinated.

“It doesn’t really matter what brand you get. All those brands have been tested and they have similar results, which is to protect us 100 percent from the severe type of coronavirus,” says Kevin, who has two young sons.

A non-health care worker though a frontliner himself, Vince Dizon, Bases Conversion and Development Authority president and the deputy chief implementer of the national action plan against COVID-19, believes, “All vaccines that are recommended by vaccine experts and approved by our FDA are safe and effective. Following their advisory, Secretary Carlito Galvez and I decided to take the first approved vaccine that arrived in the country, and that’s CoronaVac.”

Yes, he consulted with his family first. “With the accurate information from the right people and sources, vaccine confidence will grow regardless of brand. We will continue to work on this as we roll out the program.”

 BCDA president Vince Dizon was also among the first to get the CoronaVac jab. Photo by Geremy Pintolo

Though I still fall within the Sinovac age range (why, a Sinovac jab could be a status symbol that you’re still “young”), I will wait it out. But levity aside, though I trust Doctors Gap and Kevin and Vince Dizon more than I trust Sinovac, I would not hesitate to get the Sinovac vaccine as well if I needed it soon. For instance, if I had to make an essential trip abroad in midyear or if my job meant facing people every day.

At the end of the day, I believe being vaccinated against COVID-19 will bring us back, not necessarily to the normal as we knew it before 2020, but to a better new normal. It will be, like the end of World War II, a liberation.

The lockdown may have its silver lining, but with COVID-19 in our midst, more lives will be lost (never in my lifetime have I seen daily counts of deaths on the front pages), jobs are diminishing, children cannot go to school, and people over 65 are locked down in their homes.

It is really time to fight back. Jab after jab. 

Banner and thumbnail caption: Philippine General Hospital medical director Dr. Gerardo Legaspi is the first Filipino to officially get vaccinated against COVID-19 in the Philippines. Photo courtesy of the Presidential Communications Operations Office