NEWS | Philippines faces adversities amid vaccine procurement

Photo from Dado Ruvic, Reuters/File

As countries struggle to contain the virus, governments have increasingly resorted to negotiating deals for potential COVID-19 vaccines. The Philippines, in particular, is currently in negotiations with four pharmaceutical companies, targeting to inoculate at least 60 million Filipinos. This goal, however, was met with skepticism by various senators, due to the gross underfunding for the proposed vaccination program and the supposed incompetence of the assigned procurement agency.

Current negotiations

The Philippine government is close to finishing deals with British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, who promised to supply at least 20 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine to the country. According to Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr., Philippine vaccine czar, this vaccine is one of the most affordable, tagging each dose at around $5.

Health Undersecretary Rosario Vergeire said in an online media briefing that the evaluations by experts and the Ethics Board already started as the company successfully submitted all the documentary requirements to the Vaccine Experts Panel last November 18.

Galvez stated that once the government signs a memorandum of understanding with AstraZeneca before the end of the month, the vaccine may be available around the second quarter of 2021.

Aside from AstraZeneca, the government is also negotiating with Sinovac, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson. They are eyeing at least 20 million doses each from Sinovac and Pfizer, amounting to a total of 60 million doses to be administered to the country. Meanwhile, the vaccine from Russia’s Gamaleya Research Institute is also currently being evaluated for late-stage trials.

Priority problems in vaccine distribution

Once the vaccines are available, the government will employ a geographical and sectoral strategy for its distribution.

Galvez said the vaccine will be deployed first to hotspots or epicenters. This includes the National Capital Region (NCR), Cebu City, Davao City, Bacolod, and other areas with a high number of cases. From these areas, vulnerable sectors, health workers, soldiers, police, and other frontliners will be given priority.

The Department of Health (DOH) has identified around 1.7 million health workers who will be the top priority in the vaccination program.

Senior citizens and the rest of the indigent population come next, and right after them would be uniformed personnel. This places teachers, government workers, and essential workers a few ranks lower in the priority list. While, high-risk sociodemographic groups such as persons deprived of liberty, persons with disabilities, Filipinos living in high density areas, overseas filipino workers (OFWs), and students are placed in the latter part of the said list.

Duterte mentioned that he included uniformed personnel in the priority list as they will aid in the vaccine rollout in other sectors.

“I need a healthy military and police kasi kapag magkasakit lahat ‘yan, wala na ako maasahan, wala tayo mautusan,” he explained.

Some Filipinos also expressed their concern on the possibility of yet another case of ‘VIP’ treatment when the vaccination program starts. This controversy was at its peak back in March and April, when politicians, senators, and other government officials were tested for COVID ahead of frontline health workers and other high-risk citizens.

However, the DOH representative, Dr. Aleli Annie Grace Sudiacal, insisted that the prioritization of sectors will only be carried out based on the availability of supply.

Scarce funding and procurement woes
Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez said in a televised briefing that the government is seeking P73.2 billion in funds from different sources such as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank (ADB), state-run banks, and bilateral sources to pay for the vaccines of 60 million Filipinos.

Among this P73.2 billion, P40B will be loaned from the World Bank and ADB, P20B from domestic sources like Landbank and Development Bank of the Philippines, and P13.2B from countries where a vaccine is being developed. Dominguez said, however, that the 13.2B from bilateral sources is not completely negotiated.

Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) Secretary Ramon Lopez told Philippine News Agency that this is when the Philippine International Trading Corporation (PITC) came into the picture as a procuring agency.

Meanwhile, some senators expressed their disapproval of the PITC’s involvement in the vaccines’ procurement. Senator Frank Drilon argued that it may slow down the process if it will not do its job properly. Senator Panfilo Lacson, on the other hand, called it a redundant agency as its functions are similar to the Department of Budget and Management’s Procurement Service (DBM-PS).

“Unang-una kailangan natin ang bakuna, sa aking estimate at least darating mga July or August next year. Kung hindi agad magawa ng PITC ang kanilang trabaho ay talagang hindi po makakarating sa atin ang bakuna on time,” Drilon said.

Drilon also added that the vaccines may be purchased by the DOH and Department of Science and Technology’s (DOST) respective procurement offices.

Budget for herd immunity

Senators also proposed an increase in the original P2.5B budget of the inoculation program, as they noted it was not enough to ensure a sufficient proportion of vaccinated Filipinos. They likewise pointed out the huge logistical and human resource requirements in the process of its administration.

For instance, Lacson said that this will only cover for the vaccination of around 3.9 million people, which is far from the 60 million and less than the 60% target of DOH.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque III explained that 60M vaccinated citizens is enough to achieve herd immunity, a community’s resistance to a disease brought about a high proportion of immunized people.

“Herd immunity, Mr President, is anywhere from 60% to 70%, according to the World Health Organization. If we’re able to reach that, we’re going to pretty much arrest the spread of this and mawawala yung COVID-19 sa ating lipunan,” Duque reiterated.

Future of virology research

The proposed virology research institute of the DOST will receive P284M this coming 2021 to kickstart equipment purchases for research and assessments on COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.

According to Vince Dizon, deputy chief implementer of the National Action Plan Against COVID-19, the creation of the institute will not only help facilitate fact-based solutions for the pandemic, but also pave the way for a strengthened Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education.

“I think this is a good step if we want to create a world-class research institute and bring in our very own experts and talents in the country to do more findings on infectious diseases. Overall, it was a smart investment on the part of the government because the pandemic won’t be ending anytime soon.”

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