The state of public health emergency has not yet been lifted since COVID-19 variants are still a threat, infectious diseases expert Dr. Rontgene Solante said Sunday.
In an interview on radio dzBB, Solante said COVID-19 infections in the country are now “very stable” and even the hospitals are no longer getting overwhelmed with new cases.
“Maybe the only problem I see here on why we still can’t get rid of the public health emergency is because of the threat of the variants of concern,” he said in Filipino.
The state of public health emergency was declared in March 2020, the onset of the pandemic, by then-President Rodrigo Duterte.
The Philippines is also currently under a state of calamity due to the coronavirus outbreak after President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. extended it until December 31, 2022.
The Department of Health (DOH) has been seeking the passage of a proposed measure that will serve as the basis for the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic even after the declaration of the state of calamity in the country expires.
Currently, the only variant of concern tagged by the World Health Organization (WHO) is Omicron B.1.1.529. However, the Philippines recently detected Omicron BQ.1, a sublineage of the highly transmissible Omicron BA.5 subvariant.
There are 16 total recorded BQ.1 cases in the country as of Friday, according to the DOH.
Meanwhile, 4Ps Rep. Marcelino Libanan said Malacañang should designate a permanent DOH secretary to quickly modernize the country’s health care system and position the Philippines as a global medical hub, just like Singapore.
“The Philippines has all the assets needed, including highly trained physicians, nurses, medical technologists and pharmacists, to advance as an international medical center for foreign patients looking for world-class health care,” he said.
“In fact, Filipino health care professionals are also admired around the world as the most caring. We have to capitalize on this,” he added.
“We should aspire to be like Singapore, which receives more than 160,000 foreign patients who undergo over 70 kinds of medical treatments or procedures every year,” he said.
“In fact, a growing number of wealthy Filipinos are already flying to Singapore just to seek medical treatment. This is not just about medical tourism. This is also about providing every Filipino, rich or poor, access to world-class medical treatment services through our public health system,” he added.
The President has not yet nominated a DOH chief but named Vergeire asofficer in charge and extended the state of calamity due to continuing the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Friday, Vergeire said the DOH can provide the Commission on Audit (COA) with the documents related to the procurement of COVID-19 vaccines, as stated in the non-disclosure agreements (NDA) with the suppliers.
In a press conference, Vergeire said that these NDAs included exemptions that stated that “[if] it is required by law, if it’s required because of a process for auditing or investigation, we (DOH) can already share [the data].”
However, according to COA chairman Gamaliel Cordoba, former Health Secretary Francisco Duque III had written to the state auditors saying that the DOH could not provide the documents due to the signed NDAs with suppliers.
During the hearing on his ad interim appointment, Cordoba said that the COA legal office position was that they were not bound by the NDAs.
He warned that COA may “have to issue a notice of suspension and go through the process of notice of disallowance,” including the issuance of a subpoena to DOH, if they will not release the documents.
This was considering the special audit requested by the World Bank (WB) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) on the loans they granted the Philippine government for the procurement of COVID-19 vaccines—for which the COA chairman committed to ensuring a complete audit.
DOH said they were the ones who sent the letter to the COA in September to request the special audit and chose COA to be its auditing firm in the agreements.
“Our funds that we have used for us to procure these vaccines came from the different loans with multilateral organizations. That’s why we also asked for this special audit because the World Bank and thenADB were requiring an audit system for this amount of money we borrowed,” Vergeire said.
“The best agency that we can tap so that we can have an accurate auditing process would be the COA,” she added.
Vergeire also reiterated the DOH’s commitment to cooperate with the audit process and stressed that their legal experts are already looking into the matter to ensure that there will be no violation of the NDAs with vaccine suppliers.
Senator Juan Edgardo Angara, who defended the proposed P13.1-billion budget of the state audit agency for 2023, earlier said there was P8.93 billion under the 2021 national budget allocated for vaccine procurement and almost P70 billion from foreign-assisted loans.
He added that there are other appropriations for COVID-19 vaccines that were included in other laws.
On the other hand, Vergeire said that 44 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines were wasted due to expiration and operational wastage.