Vaccine wars

"The whiff of scandal could rise to high heavens."


President Duterte and his subalterns, Vaccine Czar Carlito Galvez and Health Secretary Francisco Duque, are at loggerheads with the Senate led by Senate President Vicente “Tito” Sotto III, and Senators Panfilo Lacson, Senate Minority Leader Frank Drilon, and Francis Pangilinan, on the anti-COVID-19 vaccines, particularly on three issues: one price; two, volumes, and three, timetable of rollout.

Until today, nobody knows exactly when ordinary Filipinos will be inoculated against the most dreaded disease to hit mankind in the last 100 years. Also, nobody knows exactly the volume of vaccines coming to the Philippines, at exactly what prices.

A Bangkok newspaper last week published some vaccine prices. They are consistently much lower than the rumored buying prices of the government for the same brands. Examples: Astra Zeneca BKK P473 vs P620 of DOH; Pfizer P1,232 vs P2,379 of DOH; Moderna P1,951 vs P3,904-P4,504 of DOH; Sinovac P591.32 vs P3,639.50 of DOH; and Gamalaya BKK P1,183 vs P1,220 of DOH. The DOH figures include 12 percent VAT and 10 percent inflation.

Manila’s buying prices are 23 percent overpriced for Astra Zeneca, 44 percent for Pfizer, 50-57 percent for Moderna, and 515 percent (six times) for Sinovac. Either our government vaccine procurers do not know how to negotiate (tanga) or somebody is trying to make a killing. In either case, the whiff of scandal could rise to high heavens.

Said Senator Lacson at the Jan. 15 hearing on the vaccines:

“Our confusion brews from the procurement of Beijing-based Sinovac Biotech vaccine which price ranges from a low of $13.60 to a high of $29.75 or from ₱680 to ₱1,487.50 per dosage, as reported by several reliable sources. The Office of Senator (Sonny) Angara, for example, with data provided by the Department of Health itself, pegs the cost of Sinovac at ₱3,629.50 for two doses. Undeniably, data shows that Sinovac runs as the second most expensive vaccine in the market.”

Later, in a television interview, Galvez said that with the World Health Organization’s COVAX facility, the price of the Sinovac vaccine could be reduced by 300 percent.

Galvez, who studied at PMA where math is taught, got confused. If you reduce something by 300 percent, then you reduce it to below zero, meaning it’s free. What he probably meant is that the price reduction is 75 percent. Because 300 percent plus the original 100 percent is 400. You reduce it by 300 percent, that leaves you with 100; 300 over 400 is 75 percent.

Retorts Lacson to Galvez: “Our initial lock-in agreement with the Sinovac comprising 25 million doses will not be covered by the ludicrous 300 percent markdown as the COVAX facility only has this agreement for early rollout in February with Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine of a limited quantity. COVAX also has secured agreements for AstraZeneca, Moderna and also signed agreements for Johnson & Johnson and Sanofi-GSK. There was no mention of Sinovac.”

Lacson adds: “To our dreadful surprise, it may be too late now to backpedal from our Sinovac deal since 50,000 doses are already set to be delivered on February 20, notwithstanding the lack of Emergency Use Authorization of Sinovac to the Philippines. And even in China, its country of origin, Secretary Galvez is positive that we will have a rollout of the vaccine next month and onwards. In his words, as if speaking on behalf of the Food and Drug Administration, ‘Iyong EUA po ng Sinovac, baka ma-approve po before February 20. Maganda ang arrangement natin kasi may darating kada buwan’.”

Warns Senator Lacson: “When public officials hide under the cloud of secrecy, confidentiality and motherhood statements, we cast a shadow of doubt over matters of national interest and lose sight of our health agenda amid this global pandemic. Lest we forget, Mr. President, in the course of this public inquiry, what hangs in the balance is the life and welfare of every Filipino, no more, no less.”

“There is no corruption,” Duterte assured the people in his televised show on Jan. 18. Neither vaccine czar Carlito Galvez nor Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez has anything to do with vaccine pricing, Duterte said. “I don’t know why you are so preoccupied with corruption,” the President sneered at the senators.

But why is Duterte so enamored of the Chinese vaccine Sinovac? Long before this controversy, the President related last Monday, Jan. 18, he called up Chinese President Xi Jingping. “We don’t have the money, we don’t know how to make vaccines. Please do not forget the Philippines,” Duterte pleaded with the Chinese leader. The latter assured Duterte: “We will give you, after we vaccinate our own citizens.” On Jan. 17, globe-trotting ASEAN, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Duterte. He donated 500,000 doses of Sinovac vaccines. Small gesture, big significance.

Now, the issue of when. At the Senate hearing on Jan. 11, both General Galvez and Secretary Duque mentioned February 2021 as the start of the vaccine rollout. In his talk to the people Jan. 19, Duterte mentioned two months from today, or late March at the earliest. The President is very realistic. Galvez and Duque are overly optimistic, which makes them open to charges of lying.

At the Jan. 11 Senate hearing, Galvez assured:

“Our main volumes will be coming from NovaVacs with 32 million to 40 million doses; Pfizer, more or less 40 billion, and AstraZeneca, 25 million to 30 million doses and Sinovac and Gamaleya, 25 million each.” On Jan. 15, Galvez added: “We have been pursuing a portfolio strategy and are negotiating with seven vaccine manufacturers. These are the Syringe Institute of India for Novavax, AstraZeneca of UK, Pfizer of US and Germany, Janssen or J&J of US and Belgium, Moderna of the US, Sinovac of China and Gamaleya of Russia. Each of these vaccines were given EUAs under their origin countries. This proves that we are not favoring any one particular brand or country.”

In sum, Galvez wants Filipinos to believe that the government is now trying to negotiate to buy 148 million doses from seven pharma companies. The idea is to inoculate between 30 million and 70 million Filipinos—this year, 2021.

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Topics: Tony Lopez , Vaccine wars , President Rodrigo Duterte , Vaccine Czar Carlito Galvez , Health Secretary Francisco Duque , Senate , COVID-19 vaccines
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