Senate starts inquiry on vaccine program


    SEN. Panfilo Lacson yesterday said the country twice missed the opportunity to get allocations of vaccines for COVID-19 because of the alleged inaction of Health Secretary Francisco Duque III.

    Lacson said he will bring the matter up today when when the Senate Committee of the Whole opens its inquiry into government’s vaccination program.

    Duque last month denied allegations he mishandled negotiations with American firm Pfizer Inc. which would have supplied the Philippines with 10 million vaccine doses as early as this month. Lacson has said the allocation was given to Singapore instead.

    Lacson, in an interview with radio dzBB, said that as early as May 24 last year, the China National Pharmaceutical Group Co. Ltd. (Sinopharm), maker of the vaccine Sinopharm, offered a joint venture with at least two Philippine pharmaceutical companies to conduct clinical trials, research, and transfer technology to the Philippines so that the vaccines can be manufactured here.

    Lacson said Duque did no act on the offer.

    According to his information, Lacson said the Chinese ambassador met with a number of the country’s physicians over dinner during which the Chinese official expressed disappointment over the country’s apparent lack of interest to the offer.

    “Nagkaroon ng isang parang dinner meeting sa mga kilalang doctor at naghimutok yung Chinese ambassador sinasabi na yung Philippine officials ‘they keep flirting with us’ doon tungkol sa vaccine pero wala silang ginagawang commitment, eh ang kailangan nila ay commitment otherwise yung allocation para sa PH ibigay nila sa iba (A dinner meeting was held with known local doctors and it was when the Chinese ambassador expressed disgust with Philippine officials as ‘they keep flirting with us’ in the vaccine offer but did not give any commitment. The Chinese needed a commitment from us otherwise our allocation will be given to another country),” Lacson said.

    Last month, Lacson also bared it was Duque who “dropped the ball” in the Pfizer vaccine allocation. He said the “captain ball,” referring to Duque, always messes up but manages to stay in his post as the “coach refuses to replace him.”

    At least 14 senators called for Duque’s resignation at the start of the pandemic early last year due to his alleged failure to present clear programs against the spread of COVID-19.

    Lacson said one can only surmise that Duque seems to be waiting for vaccine allocations from a “favored” pharmaceutical company, and in this case, he said that it could be Sinovac,

    The Beijing-based Sinovac is the maker of CoronaVac.

    Health experts said that Sinovac only has 50 percent efficacy rate.

    “Hindi lang ako ang nag-iisip na parang may hinihintay silang brand. May commitment na ba sila roon? Iyon lang ang logical speculation … Pero hindi natin alam, kaya yan ang gusto nating malaman (I am not the only one who is thinking that they seem to be waiting for another brand. Do they have a commitment to the other brands That is the logical speculation… But we don’t know, and that is why we want to know),” he said.

    Sen. Francis Pangilinan filed Senate Resolution 594 last month asking the Senate to constitute itself into a Committee of the Whole to clarify the government’s vaccination plan and deliverables.

    Among those invited to today’s hearing were Duque, vaccine czar Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr., Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe of the World Health Organization, Budget Undersecretary for procurement service Lloyd Christopher Lao, Science Secretary Fortunato de La Peña, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, Secretary Vivencio Dizon, (testing czar and deputy chief implementer of the Inter-Agency Task Force for Managing Emerging Diseases); and Food and Drug Administration Director General Eric Domingo.

    Also invited are medical experts from the private sector including Dr. Benito Atienza, president of the Philippine Medical Association; Rosie de Leon, national president of the Philippine Nurses Association; and Rommel Saceda, president of the Philippine Association of Medical Technologists Inc.

    The government’s total budget for the Covid-19 vaccination program is P82.5 billion, with P72.5 billion from the 2021 General Appropriations Act and P10 billion from Republic Act 11494 or Bayanihan to Recover as One Act (Bayanihan 2).

    The Department of Health said results of the surveys showing high vaccine hesitancy among Filipinos is not surprising.

    A Pulse Asia survey conducted in November showed 47 percent of Filipinos said they would not get themselves vaccinated against COVID-19, while 21 percent said they were undecided.

    The survey said concerns about the vaccine safety is the primary reason of those who said they would not get vaccinated, at 84 percent.

    The DOH said public skepticism comes from the fact that the vaccines are new and are being hastily developed because of the public health emergency.

    “Being an innovative product produced in an accelerated manner in comparison with previous vaccines, we cannot eliminate some doubts,” said DOH.

    The DOH said this is the reason the government is making sure that all candidate vaccines are strictly screened and evaluated.

    The hesitation comes as the country continues to inch closer to having clinical trials for COVID-19 vaccines with the bids of Janssen Vaccines & Prevention and Clover Biopharmaceuticals having been approved by the FDA already.

    Applications for emergency use authorization have been filed with the FDA by Pfizer-BioNTech, AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals, and Gamaleya.

    The Philippines has also formally secured 2.6 million doses of vaccine from AstraZeneca and are expected to arrive in the second quarter of 2021.

    The Philippines and pharmaceutical firm Serum Institute of India (SII) signed a supply agreement for 30 million doses of the Covavax vaccine for for delivery to the country starting in the third quarter of this year, the National task Force Against COVID-19 said.

    The NTF said Galvez signed the agreement for the Philippines with Serum Institute of India (SII) and Faberco Life Sciences, Inc., and Faberco Life Sciences Inc., on January 9. – With Gerard Naval and Jocelyn Montemayor