SEN. Panfilo Lacson yesterday said government is apparently keeping Filipinos in the dark when about the government’s vaccination program, particularly on the price of COVID-19 vaccines it is acquiring from a Chinese company.
Lacson, in a privilege speech, said other countries have been transparent about the prices of the vaccines they have bought from Sinovac Biotech Ltd., a private Chinese company that developed the CoronaVac vaccine.
He said the Indonesian government has said it sealed a deal with Sinovac for 200,000 Indonesian rupiahs ($13.57 or P683) per dose, while the Thailand government procured the same vaccine for $5 or P240 a dose.
Referring to two hearings led by the Senate Committee of the Whole last week, Lacson also said the Sinovac vaccine is the “worst-defended among at least seven brands of vaccines that the Philippine government has put on the table for consideration.”
“Looking back at last week’s Committee of the Whole two-day hearings, I couldn’t help but think that we’ve been had. Instead of having information needed to aid us in our legislative work mainly because some people in the panel of our resource persons who are in charge of the vaccine program were not forthright and honest in their responses to the questions raised by members of this august chamber,” he said.
He said the Department of Health said during last year’s budget deliberations that the Sinovac vaccine costs P3,629 a dose, but during the two-day hearing last week, Galvez kept silent on the pricing.
“When the Senate hearings raised more questions than answers about Sinovac, our officials were both tongue-tied and stuttering, leaving us with a string of flip-flopping pronouncements,” he said.
Lacson also said he and vaccine czar Carlito Galvez talked last Sunday and the latter agreed “to reveal the prices of the vaccines, among others, under certain conditions” during an executive session.
Senate minority leader Franklin Drilon, echoing statements issued by Vice President Leni Robredo on Sunday, said it is Galvez’ obligation to make public the prices of COVID-19 vaccines being acquired by government because the people’s money will be used to pay for the vaccines, especially those from Sinovac.
“Bakit ba kasi ayaw sabihin kung magkano? Huwag nating kalimutan na sa ating Saligang Batas, right to information is a basic rule. Kailangan malaman ng taumbayan kung ano ba ang katotohanan (Why can’t they say how much? Let us not forget that under the Constitution, the right to information is a basic rule. The people need to know the truth),” he said.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III wondered why officials in charge of the vaccination program are mum on the prices of vaccines.
“Why [is it that] in the other countries there is no confidentiality? (The) Prices of the different vaccines, they have been mentioning that. But here in the Philippines the prices are confidential,” Sotto said after Lacson delivered a privilege speech.
Sotto also said a third hearing is scheduled on Friday.
The Department of Health said vaccine prices remain under negotiations.
On vaccine prices circulating, it said those are the “negotiated prices that the government and the manufacturer agreed on.”
It also said the price lists being circulated was what was presented during the budget hearing last year, and sourced from the websites of the prospective vaccine suppliers
“The DOH clarifies that the said vaccine prices were indicative market prices based on the rates published by different manufacturers generated for the purpose of estimating the proposed budget for the vaccination program,” said the DOH.
Sinovac would not say what its price is and only said it is reasonable.
“In terms of pricing, definitely we’re not on the highest and expensive ones because it is the mission of Sinovac to provide the vaccine at an affordable price,” Sinovac Biotech general manager Helen Yang said in a television interview.
“I would be assuring you that this is a very good pricing that we provided to the Philippines,” she added.
Sinovac applied for emergency use authorization just last week.
Galvez, in an interview with ANC, said the Sinovac vaccine is not as expensive as circulated in social media, reiterating that the actual cost is between the prices published by India and Indonesia.
He said the $36 per dose that circulated was erroneous as the market price of Sinovac’s vaccine is around at $26.50 per dose. He said the Philippines will get it at an even lower price which he said will not exceed P700.
Galvez said the government has not made any payment to Sinovac yet and will do so only a month after a supply agreement has been signed and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has already approved and issued an emergency use authorization for the Chinese vaccine.
Galvez, in the ANC interview, also said he was saddened and hurt following suspicions of corruption in the vaccine procurement program.
He said it hurts that some people in government are involved in corruption but not everyone in public service is corrupt, adding he himself is clean.
Lacson said Galvez and other officials involved in the procurement of vaccines have been invoking a confidentiality agreement with Sinovac.
Lacson said Galvez, apparently to appease the public, told a TV interview that the cost of Sinovac, when acquired through the COVAX facility, “will decrease by as much as 300 percent.
He said the initial locked-in agreement with Sinovac of 25 million doses as mentioned by Galvez will not be covered by the 300 percent marked-down price.
“As discussed during the hearings, COVAX facility only has an agreement for early rollout in February with Pfizer BioNTech vaccine of a limited quantity. COVAX has also secured agreements for AstraZeneca and Moderna, and signed agreements for Johnson & Johnsons and Sanofi-GSK. There was no mention of Sinovac,” he said.
“When I asked Secretary Galvez a direct question on whether or not Sinovac is part of the COVAX program, his answer was “nag-a-apply pa lang (it is still applying).”
Lacson said that during the second hearing last Friday, World Health Organization representative to the Philippines Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe disclosed that under the WHO program, low- and middle-income countries are recipients of free vaccines through the COVAX facility. In the case of the Philippines, it has an allocation of 44 million doses of free vaccines.
“As I was observing our resource persons from where I sat right in this hall, I didn’t notice any glow in their eyes or at least an expression of pleasant surprise in their faces, which should have been the case for a normal person after hearing such a wonderful piece of information,” he said.
Lacson also cited an inconsistency of Galvez when the latter said that the price of P3,629 is actually the vaccine from Chinese state-owned company Sinopharm, not Sinovac, but said it was the Department of Health which gave the price of Sinovac during the budget deliberations last year.
He said if the Senate had not scrutinized the pricing, and if the deal with Sinovac had been sealed, the difference in price would have been $350 million or P16.8 billion, since the government said Sinovac costs $19 per dose as compared to how much Thailand bought the same vaccine for $5.
“That being said, I am not prepared to accuse anyone in particular of corruption. Rather, it defies logic to suspect at least an attempt to overprice the vaccine. Again, when there is an attempt at overpricing, isn’t it also logical to think na may kikita ng limpak-limpak na salapi (that somebody would rake in millions of money)?” he said.
Lacson said it is “well and good” if the government was able to negotiate for a much lower price of Sinovac at P650 per dose as stated by Palace spokesman Harry Roque.
“Now, who dropped the price?” he added.
He said Galvez also apparently tried to speak as an official of the Food and Drug Administration by saying that Sinovac’s emergency use authorization will be approved by February 20 when the FDA itself said it has not yet started with the assessment of the application since results of the vaccine’s Phase 3 clinical trials have yet to be released.
“Needless to say, the assurance made by Secretary Galvez that Sinovac will be approved before its supposed roll-out somehow sends an impression of undue preference for the Sinovac over other available vaccines. It also poses the question: Are we not preempting the independent evaluation of the FDA with such pronouncement from the chief of the National Vaccine Program?” Lacson added.
“We face a serious dilemma not only in sourcing vaccines, but most importantly, in winning public trust and confidence. With a recent poll showing that only 25 percent of Filipinos are willing to be vaccinated, while 28 percent won’t get the vaccine and 47 percent are undecided, there is much to do in advancing our agenda. We should start with transparency, openness, and competence for the best interest of our people. They have the right to be informed of their options – to choose, or to refuse. They deserve no less,” he said.
Galvez, at a briefing at the House of Representatives, said the preference of local government units (LGUs) for other COVID-19 vaccines is proof that the national
government is not favoring Sinovac.
“This proves that we are not favoring any brand or country,” Galvez told the House committee on health in a briefing on the government’s COVID-19 vaccination program. “We will have a fair mix of vaccine options.”
Galvez issued the statement after some lawmakers, including Lacson, questioned what seemed to be Malacañang’s preference for made-in-China vaccines, the effectiveness of which remains under question after Sinovac was only able to register a 50 percent efficacy rate.
Sinovac’s vaccine reportedly costs a lot more than those produced by other foreign firms like Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc. of the US, the UK’s AstraZeneca PLC, and the Chinese state-owned firm China National Pharmaceutical Group Corp. which is also known as Sinopharm.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque has said Sinovac is cheaper than the P3,000 rates that had been circulating in social media. He said the price in Indonesia is around P650 per dose while Galvez said the P3,000 rate apples to Sinopharm.
“With regard to the price, the negotiation will result in the best price available given our total volumes,” Galvez said. — With Gerard Naval, Wendell Vigilia, and Jocelyn Montemayor