Senator Panfilo Lacson yesterday proposed to the government to use the large congressional insertions tagged by the Department of Budget and Management "For Later Release" (FLR) to meet the P20 billion requirement for COVID vaccines next year.
Lacson raised this possibility after he and Senate President Vicente Sotto III, and the "three czars" of the government's COVID response program met Thursday.
"I suggested that the P20 billion can be sourced from the insertions made by lawmakers marked 'FLR' because the implementing agencies concerned were not consulted on the insertions and thus could not implement them," said Lacson.
During his interpellation of the Department of Public Works and Highways' 2021 budget last year, Lacson noted some "favored" districts got humongous appropriations in the general appropriations bill – one got P15.351 billion, while another got P10.299 billion. Another got P7.924 billion, while still another got P7.559 billion.
Lacson also said huge unused appropriations of several executive agencies like the Department of Education, Department of Transportation and the DPWH – which have a history of low utilization and a poor disbursement record-can be tapped for the purpose as well.
Under the Constitution, he noted the President can realign funds in the executive department. He said the Chief Justice can realign funds in the judiciary and the Senate President and House Speaker can realign funds in the legislative branch.
"If for example, there are unused funds in the DepEd, DoTr, and DPWH, it will be relatively easy to source the P20 billion," Lacson said.
Lacson said he and Sotto recommended that the three czars initiate talks with DBM Secretary Wendel Avisado to determine which appropriations in the 2021 budget can be realigned for the vaccination program.
"It is best they talk to Secretary Avisado so he can check which appropriations can be realigned for the vaccination program. That way, we need not include the amount in the Bayanihan 3 measure," he said.
Lacson noted that during Thursday's meeting, the COVID response czars – vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr., testing czar Vince Dizon, and contact tracing czar Benjamin Magalong – had said they needed P90 billion for vaccines in 2022, and P20 billion for this year.
To address this, Lacson said they discussed that the P90 billion needed for next year’s vaccine procurement budget be included in the regular budget of the Department of Health, instead of putting it under the Unprogrammed Fund, thus ensuring its availability, especially under a cash-based budgeting system.
On Saturday, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said the DOH is looking into the effects of injecting a patient with a second vaccine dose of a different brand from the first due to the limited supply of COVID-19 vaccines.
Vergeire had earlier ruled out mixing and matching vaccines.
On Saturday, she said the DOH would wait for evidence from tests in other countries that this practice would yield results.
So far, she said, the Vaccine Expert Panel has found “a theoretical basis” for mixing vaccine doses.
“But this is theoretical, so we need to wait for further information and evidence,” she said.
The DOH is working on guidelines on the "interchangeability or mixing" of COVID-19 vaccines, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said on Thursday.
“Interchangeability" could apply if, for instance, one suffers a severe allergic reaction to the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, then he or she cannot take a second dose, and authorities have to identify an alternative, said FDA chief Eric Domingo.
The FDA and health officials are meeting on this, he added.
“The Department of Health is drafting guidelines on how interchangeability or mixing of vaccines will be implemented, in case the second dose identical to the first cannot be given,” Domingo said in a press briefing.
Also on Sunday, Vice President Leni Robredo expressed concern over government officials being inoculated with unregistered COVID-19 vaccines, saying this was a mockery of the FDA.
Earlier, the Palace said President Rodrigo Duterte had received a jab of a COVID-19 vaccine from Sinopharm, a Chinese company, even though it is not covered by an emergency use authorization (EUA).
"We as public officials who get inoculated should be careful in what we say in public. In a way, that is a promotion of a vaccine without an emergency use authorization. It seems to be a mockery [of] our regulatory agencies,” she said.