BY GERARD NAVAL and JOCELYN MONTEMAYOR
AMID pressure from lawmakers, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III yesterday defended the policy of the national government of being the sole authority in the acquisition of vaccines for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), saying it is needed to avoid conflicts and competition.
“It would be better if there is only one orchestrator. It is hard to have several conductors,” said Duque in a radio interview after lawmakers raised the issue of monopoly and pressed the national government to allow local governments units (LGUs) and private firms to deal directly with the vaccine makers.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the national government has no monopoly in the procurement of COVID-19 vaccines but noted current arrangements allow only for a government-to-government agreement or a tripartite deal that involves the national government.
Duque said the policy is meant to ensure a unified and systematic vaccine rollout system in the country.
“We are not assured that there will be enough vaccine supply within a given time. We wouldn’t want this to result in infighting for the limited vaccine supply. It may result in who will be the highest bidder,” he said.
“This is meant to align the efforts with the vaccine initiative of the national government, which integrates and consolidates all resources and initiatives,” he added.
A statement issued by the Department of Health said, “Manufacturers cannot sell directly to the LGUs nor to any entity, unless they are under the vaccine initiative of the national government. They cannot procure and roll out COVID-19 vaccines on their own. This must be coordinated with the national government.”
Duque said the unified system aims to ensure that everyone will be given equal access to the COVID-19 vaccines.
“We don’t want to veer away from the prioritization of the indigent, healthcare workers et al. We need to have proper prioritization. If there will be none, it will be a free for all. And for sure, the big companies will be first served,” said Duque.
He assured the public that the national government will adhere to the “principle of equity, where delivery of services are biased towards the vulnerable and the disadvantaged.”
During last Monday’s Senate hearing, several senators pressed the national government to allow local government units and the private sector to purchase COVID-19 vaccines directly from manufacturers.
Senators also scored the national government for supposedly monopolizing the procurement efforts for the COVID-19 vaccines.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said a systematic vaccine rollout program is needed.
“In the case of the Philippines, this is so they can minimize the impact of the pandemic by protecting the most at risk, meaning the frontline healthcare workers, the most vulnerable, the elderly, people suffering with co-morbidities,” said WHO Representative to the Philippines Dr Rabindra Abeyasinghe in a televised public briefing.
Abeyasinghe appealed to the public to exercise patience as they await the vaccine rollout of the national government.
“The rollout is going to take time because, on the global scale, vaccines are not available to roll out immediately,” said Abeyasinghe.
Roque denied the monopoly allegation.
“We do not forbid them. The national government has no monopoly on the purchase of vaccines,” he said.
Roque, in a virtual briefing, said while the negotiations are done in coordination with the national government, it is the LGUs and private firms that will actually pay for the vaccines under a tripartite or multilateral agreement.
Several LGUs had recently signed tripartite agreements for the purchase of millions of shots of vaccines from British firm AstraZeneca.
A tripartite agreement has also been signed by the government with the private firms and AstraZeneca for 2.6 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine for delivery in the third quarter of 2021. An agreement for a second batch of 3.7 million to 3.8 million is also being finalized this week.
Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles, in a separate virtual briefing, said at last 13 million Filipinos are expected to be vaccinated with the help of the LGUs and private sector that bought their own vaccines.
The national government targets to vaccinate 50 million to 70 million Filipinos for free but Nograles said the Department of Finance reported that it has secured funds to cover the vaccination of at least 57 million Filipinos, excluding minors.
The government has set aside P72.5 billion for the vaccination program which would be sourced from the 2021 budget and Bayanihan 2 while P62.5 billion will come from loans from the Asian Development Bank, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and World Bank.
Vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr., in an interview with ANC’s HeadStart yesterday, said vaccines from Pfizer may arrive earlier than the 50,000 doses of vaccines from Sinovac, which are expected in February.
The Pfizer vaccine will be secured under the arrangement under the COVAX facility, a partnership that aims to ensure equitable distribution of the vaccines among countries.
Galvez said he was set to meet with officials of COVAX Facility–Gavi yesterday to finalize the country’s application for the rollout either in the second or third week of February. He said prior to the meeting, the Philippines was informed that it could qualify for the February rollout under the COVAX arrangement which would provide free vaccines to 20 million people.
Galvez said the Pfizer vaccine would be on top of the 50,000 doses of the vaccine from China’s Sinovac that is also expected next month.
Galvez said a second batch of Sinovac vaccine will be 950,000 which is due to be delivered in March. A total of 25 million Sinovac vaccines has been secured by the country.