Botched COVID-19 vaccine talks for Pfizer's doses escalate

Christian Deiparine - Philstar.com
Botched COVID-19 vaccine talks for Pfizer's doses escalate
In this Jan. 1, 2020 photo, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III holds a press conference.

MANILA, Philippines — Health Secretary Francisco Duque III has been told by President Rodrigo Duterte to respond to allegations that he was responsible for losing the country millions of doses from Pfizer's possible COVID-19 vaccine, as the issue heightens amid a global race to secure doses for the deadly virus.

The president's latest pronouncement follows after Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. bared that Pfizer's vaccine could have made its way into the country by January, only for someone to botch his talks with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. 

Had the said negotiations materialized, the Philippines would have had 10 million doses of Pfizer's at its reported 90% efficacy, as nations scramble to get doses for its population even when nothing is out yet in the market. 

"We are not privy to the discussions," said Palace spokesperson Harry Roque in a briefing on Thursday. "But the president has advised Secretary Duque to answer the allegations of Secretary Locsin, in the same manner that he defended himself in yesterday's meeting."

Duque, who has faced calls to step down amid the health department's handling of the COVID-19 crisis, has denied that the bid to purchase Pfizer vaccines has failed, and was only for ensuring that government was not entering into an "onerous" deal.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson had since tagged Duque as the official responsible for the failed effort, after he cited conversations with Philippine ambassador to Washington Jose Manuel Romualdez.

"The direct quote is: in July, we passed the ball to him," he wrote on Twitter. "Instead of him aiming at the hooped, he scratched his balls so he dropped the ball even as time was running out. Then, Singapore grabbed the shot the ball. Now, they have the vaccines and we don't."

Palace had sought to defend Duque and said Pfizer's vaccines could not have been secured by the country in early 2021 anyway, as countries in better financial standing have ordered and paid for more doses.

There was no direct response as well to the question if Duterte, who has significantly pinned his hopes for a vaccine, knew of the health chief's ordeal.

"The overall demeanor of the president is he did not see any major lapse because we are talking about contracts and Secretary Duque is not a lawyer," Roque said in mixed Filipino and English. "What we are emphasizing is it appears impossible for us to get Pfizer by January as their deliverables had been completely paid for by rich countries."

Signing the CDA

Speaking to ANC's "Headstart," Duque gave a timeline on how the signing of the confidential disclosure agreement with Pfizer unfolded, saying the US drugmaker initially wanted the office of Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea to sign the CDA but later on passed it to the health department.

Based on the health chief's explanation, Pfizer sent the CDA to Medialdea's office as early as August, but the signing of the crucial document was handed to him only in September.

He said too that Medialdea did not sign the CDA because he believed that vaccines are a matter for the health department to deal with. 

"He (Medialdea) thought it was his judgment that because vaccines are health-related, it is directly aligned with the mandate of the DOH," Duque said. "So that reason is well grounded." 

So why did the executive secretary took long to pass to him the CDA? 

"I think [he] was well aware that we had to proceed with caution and really get a lot more independent information with regard to thiis new vaccine," Duque said.

It was eventually signed three weeks later on October 20, after Duque said he was told that it was his call to make despite him admitting that some provisions had been "one-sided."

The Philippines has so far secured 2.6 million doses from AstraZeneca through a donation by the private sector but is seen to arrive by the second quarter of 2021.

Government's bid to inoculate 24 million Filipinos by early next year is also facing hurdles as doubts surface on the 25 million doses of the Chinese-made Sinovac the administration is eyeing to procure, as its developers are still not reporting results on its efficacy and its vaccine is the second priciest among the others being eyed. 

Vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr. has also yet to comment on the matter.

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