BY WENDELL VIGILIA and RAYMOND AFRICA
A LEADER of the House of Representatives yesterday joined senators in urging the national government to allow local government units (LGUs) and the private sector to directly procure COVID-19 vaccines from manufacturers to expedite the vaccination drive which could take years to accomplish.
Deputy speaker Rufus Rodriguez filed House Resolution No. 1460 which invokes every Filipino citizen’s constitutional right to health. He said LGUs should be allowed to import vaccines for their constituents because the national government would take care of the vaccination of only 30 to 50 percent of the country’s population.
He also said allowing LGUs and private companies to buy their own vaccine will greatly help the national government in achieving its goal of herd immunity, which calls for inoculating at least 80 percent of the population.
In a hearing last Monday, several senators pressed the government to allow the LGUs 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.
Yesterday, Senate President Vicente Sotto III yesterday called on the government to ease regulations on the procurement of COVID-19 vaccines for the private sector and local government units, saying the people should have protection from the virus even with reported side effects rather then live without any protection at all.
Rodriguez, in filing the resolution, said the government’s priority “should be having as many Filipinos as possible vaccinated in order to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic, get the economy on the road to recovery and return the nation to pre-2020 normality.”
He said more than 30 provinces and cities have allocated funds for buying jabs approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), with the cities of Makati, Quezon and Taguig setting aside P1 billion each.
He added that even small provinces like Biliran and Eastern Samar are raring to procure vaccines, with allocations of P100 million and P500 million, respectively.
Rodriguez said LGUs and scores of private companies intend to give the vaccines free to their constituents and employees.
Rodriguez has also filed a bill to exempt vaccine importation from duties, taxes and other fees.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson on Monday underscored the government’s apparent lack of sense of urgency in procuring vaccines when LGUs and the private sector are willing to buy the vaccines.
During the Monday hearing, FDA director general Eric Domingo said government cannot let entities other than the national government to procure vaccines because it is the Philippine government which will be responsible if anything bad happens to a vaccine recipient, and not the vaccine makers whose products are still undergoing Phase 3 clinical trials.
Domingo said it is only the national government which would take responsibility through the emergency use authorization (EUA) which allows the use of vaccines or medicines that are still under development, adding that the grant of EUA does not equate to the vaccines being an “approved product.”
Senate minority leader Franklin Drilon yesterday said if the government wants to achieve its target of inoculating 70 million Filipinos within the year to achieve herd immunity, it should allow the private sector and LGUs to negotiate directly with pharmaceutical companies.
He said he doubts the government’s vaccination plan will be doable considering that there are stumbling blocks to its target of securing 148 million doses to inoculate 70 million Filipinos this year.
Drilon said among the stumbling blocks are non-issuance of EUA to any vaccine, indefinite date of arrival of the vaccines, funds to purchase the vaccines are still not secured, and the high vaccine hesitancy among Filipinos.
“The government’s vaccination program is almost impossible to achieve, especially when officials said that they will have 148 million doses within the year. The arrival of the vaccines is not even definite. How can they say that they will be able to purchase 148 million doses by the end of 2021 when up to now, we haven’t given any emergency use authorization to any vaccine and we have not been able to raise, through loans, all the needed amount for the purchase of the vaccines?” Drilon said.
The FDA said it is ready to issue an EUA to vaccine makers Pfizer this week, and later to AstraZeneca.
“I am not reassured in the slightest by what I heard. To be honest, I am more confused now. The government’s COVID-19 vaccination plan fails to provide the public the assurance they need from the government. The plan is good on paper. The plan is filled with uncertainties and it leaves too much to chance,” he added.
Drilon said the government’s target of securing 148 million doses within the year is simply difficult to achieve given what Galvez said that 80 percent of global supply has already been procured by rich countries.
“If only the government was able to make advanced purchases last year, similar to other low-and-middle income countries such as Indonesia and Brazil, maybe we would have a better chance of securing these 148 million doses of vaccines this year,” he said.
He said funding is not even guaranteed at this point as the government has not fully secured the loans to fund the P70 billion in the unprogrammed fund for the procurement of COVID-19 vaccines.
The government has allotted P82.5 billion for the purchase of the vaccines but only P12.5 billion is in the programmed appropriation — P2.5 billion will come from the General Appropriations Act and another P10 billion under the extended Bayanihan 2.