SENATORS yesterday pressed government to allow local government units and the private sector to purchase COVID-19 vaccines directly from manufacturers, and raised the issue of apparent government monopoly in the procurement of vaccines.
Health and other officials, however, shot down the proposal, citing regulations.
Senate President pro tempore Ralph Recto said the private sector has the capability to buy vaccines from foreign firms.
“It would appear na parang monopolized ng national government ang pagbili ng bakuna. Eh kaya naman ng pribado na bumili din para sa kanilang mga empleyado, katulad ng ibang LGU… So, bakit ‘di natin payagan? Why leave it all to the national government?” he said at the Senate Committee of the Whole hearing on the government’s vaccination rollout plan,
“It’s just a regulatory issue. We are imposing it upon ourselves… Why not just allow the private to [buy] at their own risk?” he added.
Recto said that to hasten the vaccination program, the government should allow the private sector to import vaccines “by themselves and freely choose the brand with the highest effectivity rate.”
“We are talking about a strategy, a plan. If you tell us there is a deficiency in the law, then we can amend the law quickly. That’s the purpose of our meeting…so tell us where are the bottlenecks,” Recto said.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson asked the government resource persons, led by vaccine czar Carlito Galvez, about the government’s apparent lack of sense of urgency in procuring vaccines when local government units (LGUs) and the private sector are willing to buy the vaccines.
Lacson said he received information that negotiations between the national government and the UK-based firm AstraZeneca PLC “hit a snag” sometime November or December last year as the government wanted to change the terms in the agreement.
He said LGUs initially wanted to course their procurement through “GoNegosyo,” which was authorized by the Inter Agency Task Force on COVID-19 (IATF) to deal with AstraZeneca but due to the failure of negotiations, Galvez took the initiative to “allow” the LGUs unofficially to deal with AstraZeneca themselves, instead of coursing it through the private sector.
Galvez denied the information, saying that while the LGUs and private sector want to help the government in procuring the vaccines, there are certain rules and regulations to be followed.
“Even though that the President has given us the advance commitment go signal, we still have to follow the rules… the anti-corruption law, that’s why what we are doing right now is follow that rule and we have to be patient on that and we are telling the public that some negotiations will have a snag,” Galvez said.
Eric Domingo, director general of the Food and Drug Administration, said the government cannot allow the private sector or the LGUs to directly buy any vaccine or medicine which does not have final approval. Domingo said the candidate vaccines available now are just given emergency use authorization.
Recto said in mixed English and Filipino: “Why is the national government monopolizing the purchase of vaccines? Why does not it allow the LGUs and the private sector do their own purchases? I understand that the COVAX facility will be cheaper, but if this is a whole-of-nation approach, we must allow the private sector if they were willing to pay for a much higher price of vaccines.”
Senate majority leader Juan Miguel Zubiri said that under the Bayanihan Law, private entities are authorized to procure COVID-19 vaccines from pharmaceutical companies.
Galvez said if the candidate vaccines are approved for emergency use, Filipinos will get inoculated either on the third or fourth week of February as the shipment of the vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Sinovac will arrive by February 20.
Domingo said that Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca have applied for emergency use authority (EUA) before Christmas and mid-January, respectively, and the FDA is expected to soon approve their EUA.
Galvez said the first delivery in February will be 50,000 doses of Pfizer-BioNTech and Sinovac vaccines.
“We expect to inoculate 50,000 mostly health workers in the National Capital Region…By April, around two million will be already inoculated,” Galvez added.
Galvez said topping the list of those who will get the first dose of vaccines are frontline healthcare workers, followed by indigent senior citizens, then the remaining population of senior citizens will be inoculated, remaining indigent population, to be followed by the uniformed personnel from the PNP, AFP Philippine Coast Guard, and Citizens Armed Forces Geographical Units; essential workers, and overseas Filipino workers.
Next in line for the vaccination are teachers, social workers, other government workers, other essential workers outside the sectors of health, education, and social welfare; Filipinos living in high-density areas; the remaining work force; and all the remaining Filipinos.
Galvez said the government has secured 30 million doses of vaccines from the US firm Novavax, “which is extendible to 40 million,” adding the government has secured more than 148 million doses of the vaccines for this year. Aside from Novavax, Galvez said the other sources of vaccines are Pfizer-BioNTech, AstraZeneca, China’s Sinovac, and Russia’s Gamaleya.
Galvez said the target priority areas include the National Capital Region, Southern Tagalog region, Central Luzon, Davao City, Cebu City, Cagayan de Oro City, Baguio City, Bacolod City, Iloilo City, Zamboanga City, Tacloban City, General Santos City, and other identified affected areas.
He said the national government has coordinated with local government units to provide them a master list of names who will receive the vaccines.
Finance Undersecretary Mark Dennis Joven said the P72.5 billion allocated by Congress in the 2021 national budget for the vaccine program is sufficient but additional funds may be needed if the vaccine rollout becomes faster.
“A faster rollout needs more funds. We will appreciate if Congress considers more funds,” Joven said.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said the phases in the preparation for the inoculation of Filipinos will involve “master listing” of vaccine recipients, and identification and scaling up of the vaccination workforce.
He said a vaccination team which will have six members each will be formed to administer 100 vaccines a day. Duque said a doctor, nurse, or midwife (in regional health units) will be the ones who will inoculate the recipients which will be done in medical centers, rural health units, government health facilities, and private clinics.
He said 4,512 vaccination sites all over the country will be set up, adding that the government aims to inoculate 300 individuals per day per site.
After an individual has been vaccinated, Duque said he will not be allowed to immediately leave the premises as he will be observed for at least one hour to find out of any adverse reaction to the vaccine.
He said the Department of Health will launch a massive information campaign with the help of the Philippine Information Agency to boost vaccine confidence after a Pulse Asia survey showed that 47 percent of Filipinos do not want to be inoculated with the COVID-19 vaccine.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque, quoting a report from the DOH, said the Philippines secured 25 million doses from Chinese firm Sinovac, which is due to deliver the first batch of 50,000 by February.
This is on top of the 15,000 doses that would be used in the clinical trial for Sinovac, which is also expected next month.
Sinovac has yet to secure apply for EUA.
Roque said at least 950,000 doses will be delivered by Sinovac in March, 1 million each in April and May, and 2 million in June. The delivery of the rest of the vaccines would be spread out towards the end of 2021.
He is unaware of the price of the vaccine but said that China may donate some of the vaccines, as it has promised.
He said the delivery of the vaccine from Sinovac is on top of the vaccines secured by the Philippine government from other firms like the 30 million doses secured from the Serum Institute of India (SII) that is set to be delivered in the third quarter of 2021.
The country is also negotiating for the delivery of vaccines from Pfizer in June and from AstraZeneca in July, among others.
The government initially said that it aims to vaccinate 60 million to 80 million Filipinos under a three- to five-year program but Galvez, also the chief implementer of the National Task Force against COVID-19, and NTF deputy implementer Vince Dizon said last week that it targets to vaccinate 50 million to 70 million Filipinos this year.
Galvez also said the country is seeking to secure as many as 148 million doses of vaccine from seven to eight companies. Apart from Sinovac and SII, other companies that the Philippines has been talking with are Pfizer, Gamaleya, Johnson and Johnson, and Moderna.
Luningning Villa, medical director of Faberco Life Sciences Inc., partner of Serum Institute of India (SII) in the Philippines, said the first batch of vaccines from SII is expected in July.
SII, a known vaccine manufacturer in the world, partnered with United States-based biotechnology company Novavax for the development and commercialization of the Covovax vaccine.
Villa said the price of the vaccine, however, has yet to be finalized.
Roque said it is still uncertain if President Duterte will be inoculated with the China-made vaccine or if he would wait for those made in Russia.
Roque said he has been “selling” the idea of the use of the Sinovac because it is the first vaccine to arrive in the Philippines apart from its having positive results during clinical trials abroad.
He added several world leaders such as the United Arab Emirates have been vaccinated with Chinese-made vaccines while Indonesian President Joko Widodo is set to receive Sinovac’s CoronaVac on January 13 to kick off their mass vaccination program.
Indonesia targets to vaccinate 181.5 million or 67 percent of its population. – With Jocelyn Montemayor