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Lacson Exposes ‘Attempt’ To Overprice Sinovac Vaccine; Duterte, Galvez Deny Corruption, Vow ‘Clean’ Deal

Lacson Exposes ‘Attempt’ To Overprice Sinovac Vaccine; Duterte, Galvez Deny Corruption, Vow ‘Clean’ Deal
Sen. Panfilo Lacson delivers a privilege speech on Jan. 18, 2021 questioning the procurement of vaccines from Chinese drugmaker Sinovac Biotech Ltd. Senate photo

There could have been an attempt to overprice the vaccines the government is procuring from China had it not for the protests made by ordinary Filipinos and the inquiry of the Senate into the Duterte administration’s mass vaccination program for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), Sen. Panfilo Lacson said on Monday, Jan. 18.

In his privilege speech, Lacson bared that Indonesia and Thailand were able to acquire CoronaVac manufactured by Beijing-based Sinovac Biotech Ltd. at P683.30 and P240 per dose in their peso equivalent, respectively, compared to the P1,814.75 per injection of the same serum or P3,629 for two doses based on the price provided by the Department of Finance to the Senate committee on finance last year.

“Easily, I am reminded of an old story of how corruption is committed in three Southeast Asian countries – under the table; on the table; including the table,” the senator noted.

He cited the testimonies of Health Secretary Francisco Duque III and vaccine czar Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. stating that the government is negotiating with Sinovac for the procurement of some 25 million doses of CoronaVac.

‘True to their tactic, ‘If you cannot convince them, confuse them,’ our vaccine program officials brought more confusion and bewilderment in their rush to procure Sinovac. Unluckily for them, we do not get confused easily.’ Lacson said. ‘The issue with Sinovac is not just a matter of price, but more importantly, that of efficacy,” he added.

Had the Senate not conducted the inquiry into the pricing and efficacy controversy of Sinovac vaccine, Lacson said it was possible that the government pushed through with procuring CoronaVac at P3,629 for two shots and that easily the price difference of 25 million doses would fetch $350 million or P16.8 billion.

“That being said, I am not prepared to accuse anyone in particular of corruption. Rather, it defies logic to suspect at least an attempt to overprice the vaccine. Again, when there is an attempt at overpricing, isn’t it also logical to think somebody will profit from this with so much cash?” Lacson said.

He credited Sen. Francis Pangilinan for filing the resolution that led to the convening of the Senate Committee of the Whole as well as the collective effort of netizens to demand transparency from the government that helped in protecting the public coffers and saving the people billions of pesos allotted for the mass vaccination program.

What corruption?

In a televised public address on Monday night, Duterte maintained there is no corruption in the government's procurement of COVID-19 vaccines from Sinovac.

Duterte said Galvez would continue with his vaccine game plan despite the investigation to be conducted by the Senate.

"I don't know why you are preoccupied with corruption. Look for it, maybe it's in your department, not mine," Duterte declared.

Duterte stressed the Philippines would pay for the vaccines until the deal is reviewed by the finance department and his office.

Galvez also insisted that the vaccine deals are "clean."

He also reacted to calls for the government to disclose the prices of the Sinovac vaccines, saying negotiators are bound by confidentiality.

Duterte revealed that he had asked Chinese President Xi Jinping for help long before the COVID-19 issue "erupted."

"I told him we don't have resources. We do not know how to make it. Please do not forget the Philippines," the President said, adding Xi had told him that the Chinese government has to vaccinate its citizens first.

Galvez says there would be no corruption because of the "integrity" of the World Bank (WB) and Asian Development Bank (ADB)), institutions that serve as fund managers of procuring entities.

"I am not handling any funds, banks will pay for (the vaccines). We know that bank transactions are clean," he said.

Galvez also claimed that officials involved in vaccine negotiations are honest and competent.

Reveal prices

In his privilege speech, Lacson said it also did not help that government officials, particularly those in Malacañang and the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF), were not forthcoming to the committee or even to the public, particularly on the pricing of CoronaVac.

“I could not understand for the life of me why we are being kept in the dark when it comes to our price negotiations with Sinovac, while our neighboring countries could not be more transparent about it,” he pointed out.

On Sunday, Jan. 17, Lacson cited a news article on Bangkok Post dated Jan. 16 – citing figures from the World Health Organization and from the manufacturers – indicated the price of Sinovac was only $5 per dose.

During the hearings of the Senate Committee of the Whole last week, he also noted implementers of the vaccination program apparently showed preference for privately owned Sinovac, which may fuel speculations that corruption is involved in the government's dealings with the company.

While Malacañang officials previously stressed that a government-to-government arrangement is being pursued in procuring the serums, Galvez admitted he was dealing directly with an executive of Sinovac in Hong Kong.

"Sinovac has a track record of bribery, yet why insist on dealing with them?" Lacson asked in an interview over dwIZ on Saturday.

"Considering all these, can we blame the lawmakers and even our countrymen why they express suspicion in the government’s vaccination program?" he said.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III set the next hearing of the specially-convened panel on Friday, Jan. 22, as senators said more questions were raised than answered in the two previous hearings held on Monday, Jan. 11 and Friday, Jan. 15.

Lacson and other senators also said there should be more hearings as differences in prices of CoronaVAc “smack of corruption.”

According to Sotto, a decision will still have to be made on the request of Galvez to hold an executive session as some senators urged the administration to reconsider its decision to buy shots from the Chinese drug maker.

At the proper time

Malacañang – through presidential spokesman Harry Roque – vowed to disclose the price of COVID-19 vaccines purchased from Sinovac once a contract.

Roque said the price of the Sinovac vaccines cannot be revealed for now because a sale contract has yet to be signed.

"What we signed is a term sheet which is an agreement to supply, and an agreement to supply which is a valid contract by itself and we cannot say yet how much," Roque explained in a press briefing earlier on Monday.

"But don't worry, once it is delivered and once the contract is signed, we have the obligation to tell you how much, For now it's more or less P650 (per dose) but it won't exceed P700 (per dose)," he said.

He branded the high price of Sinovac vaccines circulating as “fake news.”

However, data released by Sen. Sonny Angara early on showed that the price of Sinovac vaccine is P3,629 for two doses, more costly than those of Pfizer-BioNTech (P2,379), Gamaleya (P1,220), COVAX facility (P854), AstraZeneca (P610) and Novavax (P366). These data were submitted by the Department of Health (DOH) to the Senate finance committee during budget hearings, Angara said.

Roque has disputed the data, claiming Sinovac is just "third from the most expensive out of the six brands." He has also denied that the Duterte administration is favoring Sinovac over other vaccine brands, saying it just happened that the Chinese-made jabs are the ones immediately available to the Philippines. A total of 50,000 doses of Sinovac vaccine are expected to be delivered next month.

Roque said the government is required to be strict and transparent when it comes to vaccine procurement, noting that the purchase will go through multilateral arrangements with fund managers like the ADB and the WB. The Palace spokesman reiterated that the vaccines are not yet available for commercial use because only emergency use authorizations (EUAs) have been granted to them.

"Almost all governments buy through centralized purchasing. Why? Because of limited supply. If you want to get supplies, you should place bulk orders, not by piece. That's why private individuals cannot buy. Why? Because it's for emergency use authorization only, not commercial distribution," Roque said.

Roque versus Vice Ganda: Vaccines not like detergent soaps

Roque also took a jab at comedian and television host Vice Ganda, who criticized his remark that Filipinos should not be choosy about the brand of vaccines. The comedian recently tweeted that if people are choosy about detergent soaps, the more they should be when it comes to vaccines. Roque explained that there are limited options for vaccines because of the scarcity of supply.

"Because of the limited supply of vaccines, we cannot choose one or two brands. You know, it is wrong to compare a vaccine with a laundry detergent. The supply (of vaccines) is not that many. We are competing for the 18 percent available supply," Roque said.

"Second, it won't be use on clothes. That's why not one, not two but three groups of experts are studying whether a vaccine is safe and effective. If we don't trust the experts who tell us that we can use it and that will serve as the basis for the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) to issue an EUA, who shall we trust? Perhaps not the comedians," he added.

Roque also defended his remark that the critics of the government's plan to buy Sinovac vaccines have "colonial mentality."

"Pasensiya na po kayo, ako po ay kilala bilang isang spokesperson na diretsong magsalita; wala po akong pakialam ‘no basta ako katotohanan lamang (Pardon me but I am known as a spokesperson who is direct to the point and who does not care as long as I tell the truth)," he said.

"The truth is, some of us, especially critics of the government, assess vaccines based on their country of origin... We should check whether they are safe and effective regardless of where they were manufactured."

‘Very good’ price

An official of Sinovac on Monday assured the public of the safety and efficacy of its COVID-19 vaccines that the Philippines will get at a “very good” price assured its safety and efficacy.

"In terms of pricing, definitely we are not the highest expensive ones because I think it is the mission (of) Sinovac to provide the vaccine at an affordable price," Sinovac general manager Helen Yang said in an interview with CNN Philippines.

"For the Philippines, we (are) committed to provide a favorable price but unfortunately, I'm not in the position to discuss this confidential information at this moment. But I will be assuring you that this is a very good price that we provided to the Philippines…This (CoronaVac) is a lot lower than what is being reported from the Philippines,” Yang added.

Sinovac has already applied for EUA of its COVID-19 vaccine in the country.

Yang said there had been no reported serious adverse reactions to CoronaVac so far.

"Most of the reported side effects are the pain at the injection side which is reasonable and we don't have a high fever, so the safety profile for the vaccine is very, very good," Yang disclosed. “The technology we use is inactivated vaccine, and inactivation has been applied for so many years, it has been used for decades in developing vaccines…so the safety profile for the vaccine is very good not only for the COVID-19 vaccine but also for our other vaccines that used the same technology.”

More issues

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon expressed support for calls for the continuation of the chamber’s inquiry into the government’s vaccination plan.

Drilon proposed that only a preliminary, not final, report be submitted to the Senate by the committee, which held two hearings on the government’s vaccination plan.

“There are still a number of issues hanging. These too many unanswered questions raise grave concerns, for the survival of the country largely depends on our ability to implement a successful vaccination program against COVID-19 virus,” Drilon said in a statement.

The urgent unanswered questions, he said, are the pricing, the sourcing of the vaccines, the delivery schedules and logistical support plan.

Drilon reiterated his calls for transparency, saying that “being transparent and truthful” is crucial in building up public confidence in the vaccine.

On Friday,  Sotto told government officials involved in vaccine procurement: “Just a word of advice, haste makes waste.”

Lacson cited the experience of Brazil in using CoronaVac where it was found to have only 50.4 percent efficacy.

“Let me assure Secretary Galvez, there’s no politics in this hearing…We call it an oversight, or check and balance, being exercised by a co-equal branch of government,” Lacson said.

Galvez stated the negotiations have reached the second stage already or the term sheet where the number of doses to be manufactured by Sinovac for the Philippines were locked in. The final stage was the actual supply agreement where the payment scheme is detailed.

“The vaccines are being politicized because the people see that they are being forced to accept the vaccine (Sinovac),” Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto said.

Recto and Sen. Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III said it would be better if the FDA and DOH’s expert panel on the vaccines give a definitive statement on the efficacy of Chinese-made vaccines, which uses weakened or inactivated COVID-19 virus.

Sen. Nancy Binay said Galvez and the IATF must see themselves as parents making crucial decisions on the lives of their children in selecting vaccines to be injected on Filipinos.

Galvez replied that once the FDA and the DOH expert panel on vaccines give their clearance for CoronaVac, he was willing to be inoculated himself by the serum from Sinovac even as he stressed there will be no political or business considerations in selecting vaccines that will be allowed use in the country.

He stressed that Sinovac is just one of seven in the government’s vaccine portfolio that was endorsed by the expert panel to the IATF for consideration.

Galvez and FDA Director General Rolando Domingo also underscored that while negotiations are underway, the government is under no obligation to procure from Sinovac if and when the expert panel decides that CoronaVac is unsafe or ineffective for Filipinos.

Domingo said the EUA simply paves the way for the procurement process, adding Sinovac has actually sought more time for submit its interim report for the results of phase 3 trials in Brazil, Turkey and Indonesia to the FDA.

“We’ve asked all vaccine manufacturers to also collate their data based on race, particularly Asian, so we could determine if they’re effective for us,” Domingo added.

On the issue of pricing, Galvez lamented the misinformation being fed to the public even as he cited the confidentiality agreements with all vaccine makers the government is negotiating with.

He said the prices of all the vaccines to be procured by the government will come out anyway once the agreements are signed even as he gave assurance that Sinovac gave a “very good price” to the Philippines.

Galvez pointed out that China’s economy is now recovering as it started vaccinations as early as August. He said Indonesian President Widodo had himself injected with CoronaVac.

Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri sought an executive session to allow Galvez to disclose the prices but the official stood pat saying revealing the prices would prompt the vaccine manufacturers leave the negotiations, and potentially harm other deals being arranged in other countries.

Drilon, however, was not convinced by the explanations even as he stressed that the country’s economic recovery depends on the acceptability of the vaccines by Filipinos.

“Your explanations are not credible, pardon me. We have a commitment to buy Sinovac, that’s what we see. We’re talking about the health of our economy. We must exert every effort to earn the confidence of the people. All we heard is your insistence (on Sinovac) and this does not augur well for us,” Drilon said.

Pfizer vaccines

Despite the death of 29 COVID-19 patients in Norway who were given the vaccine made by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE, the EUA given by the FDA to the company stays.

Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said the FDA is closely monitoring reports that nine patients in Norway died after vaccination.

Vergeire noted in a press briefing that Pfizer-BioNTech must submit a report to the FDA regarding the matter.

“We are thoroughly studying what is happening in Norway.  The vaccine was also given to critically ill patients in a facility…They are saying it might just be coincidental,” she said. “Because the patients are severely ill, even minor reactions to the vaccines had affected them and led to their deaths.”

“But still, they are not closing the issue…They said they don't think it is related. But more studies will have to be done to determine the causality or effects of the vaccine,” she added.