The Department of Health (DOH) will cooperate in the investigation following a complaint before the Philippine Competition Commission that the government was overcharged billions in its procurement of pneumococcal vaccines, Health Secretary Francisco Duque on Monday assured on Monday.
Former ABAKADA party-list representative Jonathan Dela Cruz earlier said the government has been overcharged billions of pesos by a single pharmaceutical company in the procurement of these vaccines. Dela Cruz, who is also a national consultant for the United Filipino Consumers and Commuters (UFCC), added that because of this, UFCC has filed a complaint before the Philippine Competition Commission (PCC) to investigate the alleged anti-competition practice.
The DOH is still awaiting the copy of the complaint filed by consumer group United Filipino Consumers and Commuters, according to Duque.
Duque said he has “ordered the legal service group of the DOH to look into this with a sense of urgency. This was filed with the PCC. We are awaiting a copy of the complaint to respond to this point by point.”
The DOH’s bids and awards committee follows the procurement processes under the Government Procurement Reform Act, Duque said.
“We will cooperate. We will give all information needed by PCC,” he said.
PCVs are meant to prevent child pneumonia, one of the top killer diseases among children 5 years old and below.
Dela Cruz, in a Kapihan ng Samahang Plaridel forum, said that the government might be unknowingly losing billions in procuring unnecessarily expensive pneumonia vaccines.
As an example, he pointed out that US biopharmaceutical company Pfizer did not have credible competition for the PCVs, but started to offer P816 per single dose to capture the market.
Then, to increase their chances of winning the recent bids, “kung saan mayroong nagbabantang bagong kompetisyon, binaba nila ang presyo hanggang makaabot ng P345 per dose. So, ninanakawan mo na ang gobyerno, niyari mo pa mga kabataan na dapat nabigyan ng mga bakuna. (When they faced new competitors in the last bidding, they brought down the price of their vaccine to P345 per dose. So, they did not only steal from the government, but they also compromised our ability to inoculate more of our children if the price were lower in the first place),” Dela Cruz said.
He said that he suspects what seems to be a monopoly is happening as both Pfizer and Zuellig Pharma are offering and pushing the same PCV13 vaccine, locking out other potential players.
Dela Cruz further questioned the effects of this suspected pneumonia vaccine monopoly, citing recent studies of the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring that there are three available PCV vaccines that are comparable the Pfizer vaccine.
Since 2014, the Philippines, through its childhood immunization program, has been using the more expensive PCV13 from Pfizer, despite WHO studies that showed that PCV10 is “non-inferior” or at parity with the PCV13 vaccines.
In 2020, there were calls to open up the PCV tender to other players, which up to that point was being dominated by Pfizer. The government, through the Department of Health (DOH), responded and opened the PCV bidding to other pharmaceutical corporations.
Dela Cruz said that when the bidding was re-opened and a new competitor for the PCV was considered, Pfizer again suddenly reduced its price from P5.5 billion annually to just P2.6 billion in the new bidding.
Aside from the alleged monopoly, Dela Cruz also revealed other harmful dynamics from other players that occur during the bidding.
“The other big pharmas pretend to be competing against each other, but the truth is they are ‘sweethearts’ or accomplices. They collude and help steer the bidding of other pharma manufacturers so they can stay and dominate the procurement process.”
The UFCC’s complaint before the PCC asked the independent anti-monopoly regulatory body to issue a cease-and-desist order and to temporarily suspend the procurement of PCVs while the investigation is still ongoing.“Pera ng bayan ang kanilang kinakamkam dito, na naapektuhan ang mga bata.” (This is the country’s money they are stealing from, and that theft is affecting our children),” Dela Cruz said.
The DOH faced Senate inquiries last year over its transfer of funds to the Department of Budget and Management to procure allegedly substandard medical equipment such as face shields from Pharmally Pharmaceuticals.