President Rodrigo Duterte has approved the use of P2.5 billion to vaccinate some 22 million Filipinos against COVID-19 and is willing to make early payments to vaccine manufacturers to ensure that the country can get enough doses.
At a meeting of the House committee on people’s participation, Dr. Aleli Annie Grace Sudiacal from the Department of Health’s Bureau of International Health Cooperation said the President has approved the inclusion of P2.5 billion in the 2021 national budget for the purchase of vaccines through the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (Covax) facility.
Covax is a global sharing mechanism for pooled procurement and equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines once they are licensed and approved. The program, under the auspices of the World Health Organization (WHO), is expected to provide vaccination for 3 to 20 percent of the population or 3.2 million to 22 million Filipinos.
Sudiacal said the Philippines is eligible under the COVAX system because it is a low middle income country which signified its intention to be part of the system. However, the country needs to pay $1.60 to $2 per dose to be able to take part in it.
“As you all know we have RA 9184 or the Procurement Act which prohibits advance payment for something that is still not there. That is why we had to seek the intervention of the President and it’s very good news that the President has approved the use of the P2.5 billion allotted for the purchase of vaccines for the Philippines to have access to the COVAX facility,” she told the committee.
Under this setup, the country may get access for about 20 percent of the population once a vaccine or several vaccines become available. She said funding will come from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.
Sudiacal said the Inter-Agency Task Force on Covid-19 has already identified 12 priority vulnerable groups that will be given the vaccine based on the guidelines issued by the WHO.
These are frontline health workers, senior citizens, the poor and uniformed personnel. Other priorities are teachers and school workers from public and private institutions, government workers, essential workers in agriculture, the food industry, transportation and tourism, socio-demographic groups at significantly higher risk like prisoners, people with disability and Filipinos living in high-density areas, overseas Filipino workers, other workers and students.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque, meanwhile, said the President has accepted the proposal of vaccine czar Carlito Galvez, Jr. to enter into advance market commitments with private foreign developers and provide advance payments to ensure the Philippines can secure vaccine doses once these are cleared for widespread use.
“We already agreed… because if we don’t agree to advance payments, we will be left out as other countries secure vaccines,” Roque said.
Duterte previously rejected the idea, but Roque said the President changed his mind upon seeing how other countries were handling the early procurement.
The President criticized pharmaceutical companies, particularly those from Western countries, for asking for advance payment for their COVID-19 vaccines that are still under development.
“If we need to sell government properties, he would do it,” Roque added.
Only recently, Duterte announced that the Philippine government might borrow $300 million (at least P14.5 billion) to purchase COVID-19 vaccines.
Duterte made the announcement after American pharmaceutical firm Pfizer and German partner BioNTech reported that their COVID-19 vaccine is 90 percent effective based on their analysis.
Roque said the President reaffirmed his promise to have all Filipinos vaccinated, with priority given to the poor.
The government has been pinning its hopes on a COVID-19 vaccine to end the pandemicm which has already afflicted more than 412,000 people nationwide.
The manufacturers of at least five potential COVID-19 vaccine products have expressed interest in conducting clinical trials in the Philippines, according to the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA).
In a press briefing Thursday, FDA Director General and Health Undersecretary Eric Domingo, cited the advantage of conducting clinical trials in the Philippines.
“Those who will conduct clinical trials here will have some advantages because we can really see what effect this vaccine will have on our situation and on the Filipinos themselves,” Domingo said in Filipino.
According to Domingo, one of these potential vaccines, Sinovac, has already been cleared by the vaccine expert panel of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) and is currently under evaluation by the FDA.
“There is one that has actually been endorsed by the DOST vaccine expert panel to the FDA. This is the one in Sinovac,” Domingo said.
In October, the DOST said the Sputnik V, Janssen, Sinovac, and COVAX-19 have expressed intent to undergo clinical trials in the Philippines.
Aside from these, Philippine Council for Health Research Development executive director Dr. Jaime Montoya noted that more vaccines will have their clinical trials in the country under the World Health Organization Solidarity Trial.
Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto on Thursday said the proposed funding in the 2021 national budget would cover only 20 percent of Filipinos, based on the cheapest vaccine being developed.
Compounding the lack of funds are cold chain supply challenges and a purchasing agency which Recto describes as “auto-immune to efficient procurement.”
“So the entire process from budgeting, purchase, storage, delivery is fraught with challenges, but I am optimistic that we as a nation can pull it off,” Recto said.
Recto cited data provided by Senator Pia Cayetano, who said that based on the costing of the DOH, the cheapest vaccine, the one developed by AstraZeneca, will cost P610 per person and the most expensive is the one from Chinese Sinopharm, at around P17,690 per person for two doses.
But injecting the vaccine requires other costs, from personal protective equipment to cold chain equipment and vehicles, as the vaccine must be kept in sub-zero temperatures, Cayetano added.
Recto said Cayetano estimated that to vaccinate 24 million Filipinos would cost P22 billion—to cover the price of the vaccine, the supply chain expense, PPEs for health workers and post-vaccination surveillance.
Another challenge, Recto said, was the Philippine International Trading Corp., a Department of Trade and Industry-attached body that is the designated buyer of vaccines. The company’s track record in other government procurement programs has been less than inspiring, Recto said.