Amid mounting criticism of the decision to buy the Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine, vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr. said the procurement of 25 million of doses of the Chinese product was not yet a done deal.
Appearing before the second hearing of the Senate Committee of the Whole, Galvez said the agreement was still subject to the final approval by the country’s vaccine expert panel.
Senators have questioned the decision to buy Sinovac when a recent study in Brazil showed efficacy of only 50.4 percent, much lower than other vaccines in the market.
Under questioning from Senator Nancy Binay Friday, Galvez replied “no” when he was asked if the Sinovac purchase was a done deal.
But Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian in a Facebook post on Friday said the shipment of Sinovac vaccines may arrive “as early as next month.”
“We are now expecting China Sinovac vaccine [to] arrive in the Philippines as early as next month. The joint anti-pandemic response over the past year has enriched and strengthened our new-era partnership and vividly illustrated the sibling ties between our two peoples,” the ambassador added.
Binay, for her part, asked Galvez why the government would seek to close a deal with a company that had only recently applied for an emergency use authorization (EUA) from the Philippine Food and Drug Administration.
She also said it would have been more logical to spend public funds to procure a vaccine from a company that had long applied for an EUA.
At this point, Galvez clarified that the national government has not yet paid Sinovac. He said that what the Philippines has with Sinovac is an “advance market commitment” to ensure that the supply of vaccines is “locked in.”
Senator Panfilo Lacson, meanwhile, lashed back at Galvez for accusing some senators of “demonizing” vaccine developers or “hurting” the ongoing negotiations with vaccine manufacturers and suppliers, apparently referring to China’s Sinovac.
Lacson also denied that he was politicizing the issue because of Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, whose resignation he has sought many times over what he called his weak leadership during the pandemic.
Lacson said Galvez had pointed to him and Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri and Senator Francis Pangilinan, “as if blaming the Senate for the brewing vaccine procurement controversies.”
“For the record, we senators spend long hours seeking clarification from our resource persons like Secretary Galvez because it is incumbent upon us to exercise our mandate to demand transparency and accountability from our chief implementers on how they plan to use public funds,” Lacson said.
He said it was unfortunate that the Senate was being made a scapegoat.
“We are just asking questions. The resource persons give data which are sometimes contradictory and chaotic,” Lacson said.
Galvez, for instance, has disputed a Senate finding that Sinovac’s vaccine is the second most expensive one available, but has the lowest efficacy.
Lacson said at this point, it might be too late to back out of the Sinovac deal, as deliveries were expected by next month.
At Friday’s hearing, Galvez also said a supply agreement with the US company Pfizer was still under negotiation, but he expected to have a term sheet by next week.
Pfizer Philippines country manager Andreas Riedel, who appeared at the hearing virtually, said the firm is “very keen” to partner with the Philippines and ensure that the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine is available for use in the country.
He welcomed the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of an emergency use authorization for his company’s vaccine.
The government is set to obtain 30 million doses of the vaccine from British drugmaker AstraZeneca, and 25 million doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine.
It has already secured 25 million doses of China’s Sinovac vaccine, 50,000 of which will arrive by February.
The Philippines also earlier signed a deal with the Serum Institute of India for 30 million doses of the Covovax COVID-19 vaccine, which will be available by the third quarter of 2021.
Senator Joel Villanueva asked if the government was ready to vaccinate up to 70 million Filipinos to achieve herd immunity that would make most of the population immune to COVID-19.
“My only question is… are you ready for this? How many health care workers would be actively needed for this?” he asked.
“If you look at the 148 million doses in 2021, and you divide 148 million by the remaining 351 days, it would mean, we will be having 421,652 doses per day to hit the target. So my question is, is this realistic?”
Senator Cynthia Villar, meanwhile, asked why private companies that donated 50 percent of purchased vaccines would not have a free hand in distributing these to their employees.
Presidential Adviser for Entrepreneurship Secretary Joey Concepcion said that vaccine provider AstraZeneca under their zero-profit program, is requiring the distribution of vaccines to vulnerable sectors and excludes the distribution of vaccines to owners and executives of the company.
But Villar said this was impractical. “Why will they buy if they cannot give it to their employees?” she asked.
Galvez said under the tripartite deal with AstraZeneca,it was the DOH that would facilitate the actual inoculation. He added that the priority given to essential and frontline workers was in line with the guidelines of the World Health Organization (WHO).
Senator Risa Hontiveros, meanwhile, brought up the illegal inoculation of the Presidential Security Group (PSG) with unregulated vaccines, suspected to be China’s Sinopharm.
She said this was an example of ‘gross irresponsibility’, which still begs the question of who in the Inter-Agency Taskforce on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) will be held accountable should the vaccines prove to be harmful or fatal.
“The national government is monopolizing the procurement so they have accountability. But if there will be real proof of harm, who will claim responsibility? Who will be charged among you?” she asked the IATF.
She said the government should stop acting like the med rep for any single brand, because there should be no first place prize for a vaccine. “We need to get all safe vaccines here: As many, as soon and as effective as possible,” she said.
Galvez said they are not favoring any particular brand or country in the selection of a COVID vaccine.
He assured the public that they will have a fair mix of vaccine options, but “we want to emphasize that only those endorsed by the vaccine expert panel will be used.”
Senator Imee Marcos urged the government to give weight to COVID-19 vaccines that included more Asian participants in their efficacy trials.
“Besides cost, cold storage requirements, ease of use, and the media hype, we must not overlook the Asian factor in choosing the safest vaccines for Filipinos,” Marcos said.
Marcos pointed out that three leading vaccine candidates that got EUA in Western countries had conducted trials in which fewer than 5 percent of participants were Asian.
The US Food and Drug Administration has reported that only 4.7 percent of participants in Moderna’s vaccine trials were Asian, while the medical journal The Lancet showed that Asians averaged only 4.4 percent in UK and Brazil trials for the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Although Pfizer placed the overall efficacy of its vaccine at 95 percent only 4.3 percent of trial participants were Asian and efficacy particularly among non-whites was lower at 74.4 percent.
The lack of a clearer breakdown of various Asian ethnicities in vaccine trials has also led health experts in India to call for greater participation of its ethnically diverse groups before granting an EUA for Western-made vaccines, Marcos said.