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January 14, 2021

Duterte Vouches For Chinese Vaccines But Says LGUs Can Choose Any Brand; Senate To Continue Probe

Duterte Vouches For Chinese Vaccines But Says LGUs Can Choose Any Brand; Senate To Continue Probe Frozen vials of the COVID-19 vaccine are taken to be defrosted and ready to be used at the MontLegia CHC hospital in Liege, Belgium on Jan. 4, 2020 as the European Commission defended its coronavirus vaccination strategy amid growing criticism in member states about the slow rollout of the shots across the region of 450 million inhabitants. Photo by AP

President Duterte vouched for the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines developed by Chinese firms as some sectors continue to criticize the government's plan to buy  shots from China.

During a televised public address on Wednesday night, Jan. 13, Duterte said the vaccines manufactured by Chinese firms like Sinovac Biotech Ltd. and Sinopharm are as effective as those developed by Western companies.  He claimed that those who received Sinovac and Sinopharm were already back to their normal lives.

"Hindi nagkulang ang mga Chinese, ‘di sila nagkulang sa utak. Bright itong mga Intsik (The Chinese did not lack brains. The Chinese are bright)," the President said.

"They (Chinese) would not venture  if it is not safe, sure, and secure," he added.

Duterte, nevertheless, said he won't force anyone to receive the China-made vaccines.

"If you don't want it, it's up to you. The statistics or maybe the empirical data would bear us out that we are choosing one that is ...safe and sure," he stressed.

Duterte assured the public he would be responsible for the government's procurement of vaccines.

"Ang masasabi ko lang, sa totoo lang, tabla lang sila sa bisa, pati safe, secure pa ‘yan (All I can say is the vaccines are equally effective and they are secure). I can say, kung ano bibilhin ni (vaccine czar) Secretary (Carlito) Galvez (Jr.), (whatever Secretary Galvez buys), it carries with it my approval," he stated.

LGUs can choose

But Duterte said local government units (LGUs) can acquire the vaccines of their choice while the national government prioritizes the use of Sinovac to fight coronavirus disease 2019 or COVID-19.

“We are not forcing anybody to join the cause of the national government,” he said. “Kung ayaw ninyo, OK lang, walang problema.”  (If you don’t want it, it’s fine. No problem.)

“I am now addressing… the mayors and governors. You can now choose any vaccine you want to buy,” Duterte said.

While Duterte told the local officials that the national government would not intervene in their choice of vaccines, Galvez said LGUs could buy them through tripartite agreement with the national government and the vaccine manufacturer.

Duterte, however, said the efficacy of vaccines developed by China, the United States or Europe are the same because they studied the same “microbes.” “It does not mean the Americans or the Europeans are better than the Chinese,” he noted.

The President also explained the coronavirus vaccine rollout in the country is delayed because of lack of supply in the market.

He said countries with the money had bought what the manufacturers had produced.

 During the meeting, Duterte reiterated that he will be deploying the military to health centers during the vaccine rollout to ensure orderly and peaceful administration of the shots.

The President also asked Galvez about the government preparedness when it comes to the storage and distribution of the vaccines as some brands need ultra low temperature.

Galvez said the Department of Health (DOH) has its own freezers while a number of private companies like the MVP Group and the Ayalas have pledged to help the government deal with the storage issues.  The International Container Terminal Services Inc. led by business tycoon Enrique Razon also committed to help bring the vaccines to the Philippines from countries of origin through its cargo services.

‘Chosen one’

Senators cited indications that point to the Duterte administration favoring Sinovac from China.

“I don’t understand…that you want our countrymen to use all the vaccines that you chose and yet you don’t want to allow the private sector, like the Red Cross to use vaccines that countrymen may want to choose,” Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri told officials of the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases during the hearing of the Senate Committee of the Whole on Monday, Jan. 11.

Zubiri said he spoke with several major pharmaceutical companies that told him they were prepared to roll out vaccines in remote areas like in Tawi-Tawi through the Philippine Red Cross (PRC).

“But the problem is they don’t want to have any quarrel with the government because the order is everything (vaccine purchase) must be centralized (with the national government),” Zubiri bared.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson said after telling ordinary Filipinos not to be choosy in getting their COVID-19 vaccines, the government should apply the same line in expediting the procurement of all qualified and available vaccines.

Lacson noted the availability of only Sinovac until June, as well as the replies of officials at Monday's Senate hearing, indicate China-based Sinovac is the "chosen one.”

"Can somebody explain why preference is given to the second most expensive vaccine, has lower efficacy, a record of suspended clinical trials and has not even applied for EUA (emergency use authorization) over other vaccines that cost much less, more efficacious and are about to be granted their EUAs?" Lacson asked on Twitter.

"That said, the national government should expedite the procurement of all qualified and available vaccines. To borrow (presidential spokesman) Secretary Harry Roque Jr.'s words, it should not be choosy in buying vaccines," Lacson said. 

Roque earlier drew flak for saying Filipinos should not be choosy when it comes to the brand of vaccine they will receive for free because only Sinovac will be available in the country until june.

Read more: Senators: Let LGUs, Private Sector Buy COVID-19 Vaccines; Palace Says Filipinos Can’t Choose Brand Of Free Shot

‘Allow Cities To Choose COVID-19 Vaccines Based On Capability and Constituents’ Acceptance’; Roque Draws Flak

Roque: ‘If You Don't Want Sinovac...You Won't Be Forced’; Officials Differ On Vaccine Procurement Of LGUs, Private Sector

 Lacson pointed out Sinovac would have a five-month headway over other brands from February to June even without applying for an EUA. He said the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) claimed this is due to the suspension of clinical trials in another jurisdiction.

Also, Lacson questioned why Sinovac whose efficacy is at 50 to 70 percent appears to have the edge even over China's state-owned Sinopharm, whose vaccine has a 79 to 86 percent efficacy and is used in the United Arab Emirates. Sinovac is also the second most expensive vaccine at P3,629 per two doses, he noted.

Worse, he said Sinovac has a record of suspended clinical trials. FDA director general Eric Domingo also told the senators it has not applied for an EUA, Lacson underscored, but is being preferred over other vaccines that "are a lot cheaper, more efficacious and are already awaiting issuance of their EUAs from the FDA."

On the other hand, he noted that in Monday's hearing, officials seemed prepared with justifications for favoring Sinovac including “taking different pathways,” “the Philippines may be at the tail-end of the supply chain,” and even saying they "will advise Sinovac to apply for EUA” after being asked why government had concluded a deal with it even without the EUA.

Galvez’s reply that they will advise Sinovac to apply for an EUA – after concluding a contract with it – only made it obvious that Sinovac is really the “chosen one," the senator said.

 Probe to continue

 Representatives from top vaccine manufacturers as well as leaders from LGUs and the business sector are set to testify on Friday, Jan. 15, before the Senate Committee of the Whole at the resumption of its inquiry into the rollout of the government’s mass inoculation program for COVID-19, which is being hit by the public for being slow and apparently politicized.

After listening to the presentations of the IATF on Monday, Senate President Vicente Sotto III said the specially-convened panel would pay attention to the side of the private sector, LGUs, and vaccine makers and distributors as government officials have not been clear, if not, issuing conflicting statements on the supply of doses to the country.

The Senate, he said, would continue to press the IATF, particularly the FDA, in the hearing to allow the private sector and LGUs to procure vaccines as the policy of having the national government control the entry of the vaccines is delaying the inoculation and preventing lives from being saved.

“What about the private sector, or even medium-sized companies, who want to procure (vaccines) for their employees? What about ordinary citizens who want to procure directly from pharmaceutical companies?” Sotto told the “Kapihan sa Manila Bay” media forum.

During Monday’s hearing of the committee, senators said the FDA’s justification on the tedious process to issue EUA is due to safety concerns of the vaccines that are still concluding Phase 3 trials. Yet, the Duterte administration is negotiating to procure this year, 148 million doses to vaccinate some 50 million to 70 million Filipinos this year to achieve herd immunity.

“So what do you (government) want, the pandemic on one hand or safety concerns (on vaccines)?” he said.

Zubiri said the government should also allow the PRC to procure its own vaccines as the humanitarian organization has a long experience in vaccination campaigns.

 Sen. Francis Pangilinan emphasized that LGUs and the private sector must have the authority to procure vaccines to have a more efficient vaccine rollout.  “I think that is a key solution. If we will just let the (DOH) be the primary and sole vaccine rollout bureaucracy, I doubt that we will be able to reach our targets.”

Pangilinan earlier expressed alarm over the different timelines and deliverables of the DOH and the IATF regarding the vaccine rollout, stressing the importance of transparency to help ensure public confidence in the program.

Aside from the government officials who attended the previous hearing, other expected to speak in the coming inquiry are Presidential Adviser for Entrepreneurship and Go Negosyo founder Joey Concepcion; officials of the Union of Local Authorities of the Philippines; and representatives from Pfizer Inc., which has its own vaccine being now used in other countries; United Laboratories; and Zuellig Pharma, the biggest vaccine distributor in the country, Zubiri disclosed.

Also invited where representatives from cold chain logistics companies, the Philippine Nurses’ Association, Philippine Medical Technologists Association, and the Philippine Medical Association.

 DOH assures safety of vaccines

 With safety concerns cited as a primary reason of those not inclined to get the vaccine, the  DOH reiterated the assurance that only those proven to be safe and effective will be chosen by the government.

In a briefing earlier on Wednesday, Health Undersecretary Maria Rasario Vergeire said an EUA will be issued by the FDA only to those that underwent “regulatory process” and has been approved for use in the country.

“This is how the government is choosing the vaccines that it will procure…All the clinical trials that manufacturers have conducted for their vaccines, we study them all thoroughly,” she noted.

Vergeire said the government is also looking at “stringent regulatory authorities” in other countries that have already studied a particular vaccine.

The official added the country is also relying on the vaccines that have been included by the WHO in its emergency use lists.

“We will be using all of these evidence so that we can have a complete evaluation of these vaccines.  It can be expedited because of this reliance and recognition pathways,” she said.

According to Galvez, there are seven vaccines that will be used in the country to combat COVID-19.

These shots are developed by Novavax Inc., AstraZeneca plc, Pfizer, Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc., Moderna Inc., Sinovac and Russia’s Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology.

“All in all, the national government earmarked a total of 82.5 billion for the procurement of the vaccines … There are many vaccines that we will procure or import,” he said.

Based on the country’s roadmap for COVID-19 vaccination, the government is eyeing to inoculate between 50 to 70 million Filipinos for this year “to save more lives” and help the economy recover.

Supply from AstraZeneca, Moderna

Galvez said in a televised press briefing earlier on Wednesday that the Philippines is on the final stages of securing 20 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine from AstraZeneca. During the meeting with Duterte, he announced that the deal involved 17 million doses.

Galvez disclosed that a tripartite agreement will be signed today, Jan. 14, for the AstraZeneca supply. 

Officials earlier announced that the Philippines has secured 25 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine from Sinovac despite reports that it has lower efficacy rates compared to other shots.

The deal expected to be signed with AstraZeneca is in addition to an agreement last year between the government and the private sector for 2.6 million doses. A second order was also placed for an additional 3.7 to 3.8 million doses.

As this developed, Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Manuel “Babe” Romualdez said the government is in the final stages of negotiating with American biotechnology company Moderna for the supply of a minimum of 10 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine.

“I am pleased to share that following months of discussions with Moderna, the Philippine government is in the final stages of negotiating for the supply of a minimum of 10 million doses of mRNA-1273, the company’s COVID-19 vaccine, with the option to purchase an additional 10 million doses, for delivery beginning in mid-2021,” Romualdez said in a statement.

He also welcomed the pledge of support of the private sector led by Razon to ship and distribute the vaccines from the manufacturing facility in Spain to the Philippines at no cost to the government.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said in December that  Moderna was “on board” and “accelerating” huge shipment of COVID-19 vaccine to the Philippines.

Addressing misinformation

An official also announced that the government will embark on a campaign to counter false information about the COVID-19 vaccine.

Philippine Information Agency (PIA) director general Ramon Cualoping III said a series of town hall meetings with health workers' groups and LGUs will be held weekly to discuss the government's vaccination program.

"Previously, we conducted CODE (coordinated operations to defeat epidemic) visits to explain, explain, explain to the people the mechanisms on how to avoid COVID-19. Now, we will also go around the Philippines again to state the plan of the national government with regard to the vaccines," Cualoping said in a televised press briefing.

"We know that fake news is spreading... We will talk to our stakeholders, the local government executives, sectoral leaders... But I think the most important is our coordination with our healthcare workers," he added.

A Pulse Asia survey conducted from Nov. 23 to Dec. 2 last year found that only 32 percent of Filipinos are willing to get vaccinated.

Forty-seven percent said they do not want to get the COVID-19 vaccine, while the remaining 21 percent were undecided. – With Neil Jayson Servallos, Pia Lee-Brago

Read More: Safety Primary Concern Of People Unwilling To Get Vaccinated; Polls Show Most Filipinos Following Health Protocols

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