Senator Panfilo M. Lacson on Friday sought simplified procedures for the entry of donated COVID-19 vaccines, especially those with emergency use authorization (EUA) from countries or territories with stringent regulatory agencies.
Senator Sherwin Gatchalian, for his part, urged local government units to coordinate their vaccine procurement with the national government to avoid excessive supply in what he described as “panic-buying” from different pharmaceutical firms.
The senators made the call during the third hearing of the Senate, convening as a Committee of the Whole, on the government’s vaccination program.
Lacson said simplifying the procedures is critical because there are many associations abroad that may donate vaccines to their sister-cities in the Philippines.
“Would it not be more practical to ensure the goods reach the intended recipients directly under strict supervision and guidance by health authorities, instead of coursing the goods through the Department of Health and having the DOH distribute them?” he said.
“Besides, many local government units like Baguio City already have their own cold storage facilities for the vaccines, as their local leaders had the foresight to act accordingly,” he said.
Allowing such donated vaccines to go directly to the LGUs instead of having to go through the logistical requirements of the DOH and Inter-Agency Task Force on COVID-19, Lacson said, would also avoid the prospect of double handling and additional costs.
The senator pointed out the pandemic involves an emergency where authorities cannot afford to have vaccines go through the bureaucratic processes.
“The point of my question is that we should find ways to simplify instead of complicate things,” he said.
In the House of Representatives, Muntinlupa Rep. Ruffy Biazon filed a bill seeking to exempt vaccines and other essential medical supplies from import duties, taxes, and other fees during public health emergencies.
Biazon, a former Customs commissioner, noted that some critical medical products, essential goods, equipment and supplies needed to address public health emergencies may have to be imported and that any impediment could affect their availability and accessibility to the people.
“Government must willingly give up these revenue sources as it will redound to more lives saved,” Biazon said.
At a hearing conducted early this week by the House committee on health, vaccine czar Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. asked lawmakers to include in the third Bayanihan law (Bayanihan 3) a provision to exempt the procurement of vaccines from tariffs and custom duties.
Biazon’s HB 8375 exempts the importation of critical medical products, essential goods, equipment and supplies from import duties, taxes, and other fees when a public health emergency is declared. The exemption will only be valid for the duration of the public health emergency.
Aside from critical medicines, included in the list of goods and supplies to be exempted are personal protective equipment (PPE); surgical equipment and supplies; laboratory chemicals and equipment; consumables such as alcohol, sanitizers, tissue, thermometers, and cleaning materials; testing kits; and other supplies or equipment as may be determined by the Department of Health and other relevant government agencies.
In the Senate hearing, Galvez vowed to reveal the exact price and other details of the negotiations on COVID-19 vaccines once the government firms up the agreement with the pharmaceutical companies.
Appearing for the third time in the Senate Committee of the Whole, Galvez said the government does not want to jeopardize the purchase of vaccines like what happened in Malaysia and Europe when manufacturers cancelled the delivery of the vaccines because the prices were made public.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon initially questioned Galvez if he is committed to reveal the price of Sinovac to the Senate and the public once the supply contract agreement was signed.
“We never for the moment doubted the integrity of Secretary Galvez. I do not know Secretary Galvez personally but he enjoys high respect among his peers,” Drilon said.
“But we have raised issues on the pricing of Sinovac principally because of the constitutional provision that the right of the people to information on matters of public concern shall be recognized,” Drilon also said.
Lacson, meanwhile, sought clarification from Health Secretary Francisco Duque III if the planned vaccine passport or vaccination certificate will be a requirement for work, travel, church worship and basic activities.
Duque said the vaccine passport is still being studied by the technical working group of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases.
He said that under the vaccine administration plan, a certificate will be issued to individuals who already received the vaccine containing their basic personal information and other details including the dates of their first and second dose of vaccines.
Duque also conceded that while the COVID-19 vaccines may prevent clinical and severe diseases and hospitalization, there is no clear evidence that it can prevent transmission.
Senator Joel Villanueva asked the Department of Health to categorize the side effects of COVID-19 vaccinations so that these can be covered by the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth).
Villanueva said he is worried that if one develops an allergy or if respiratory distress is manifested after vaccination, Philhealth would charge against existing case rates, which has a ceiling and would mean out-of-pocket expense.
“I think this is something that we should be looking into. I believe we need this guarantee of comfort, secretary, to encourage our people to get jabs,” Villanueva told Duque.
In other developments:
The Philippines pledged another $100,000 to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations COVID-19 response fund. Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said the money will come from the DFA’s travel funds.
The Department of Science and Technology has identified the target sites for three vaccine firms allowed to conduct clinical trials in the country, namely Janssen Pharmaceuticals of Belgium and Clover Biopharmaceuticals and Sinovac of China. The following are the target areas: for Janssen – San Pablo, Laguna; Cabuyao, Laguna; Makati City; La Paz, Iloilo; Bacolod City; and Metro Manila; for Clover – Quezon City; Makati City; Manila City; Taguig City; Las Piñas City; Muntinlupa; Calamba, Laguna; and Dasmariñas, Cavite; and for Sinovac – Quezon City; Marikina City; Pasay City; and Alaminos, Laguna.