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Senate seeks further hearings on vaccines
In an interview over dwIZ, Sen. Panfilo Lacson noted too many loose ends in the answers of the team of vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr. regarding vaccine acquisition.
AFP/Joel Saget

Senate seeks further hearings on vaccines

Cecille Suerte Felipe (The Philippine Star) - January 17, 2021 - 12:00am

‘Too many inconsistencies’

MANILA, Philippines — Citing inconsistencies in the information provided by officials during the two-day hearing on the government’s vaccination program, Sen. Panfilo Lacson yesterday said senators may manifest an intention to hold another hearing on the issue when session resumes tomorrow.

In an interview over dwIZ, Lacson noted too many loose ends in the answers of the team of vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr. regarding vaccine acquisition.

“We will scrutinize the transcript (of the hearings); what they did not answer, what they avoided answering – and if we still have a question. We can manifest on the floor to extend another hearing because even if we adjourned, if the majority and minority senators agree that the information was not enough, we can call for another hearing,” Lacson said in Filipino.

“The first question is why is it no longer a government-to-government agreement and why is the government talking to Helen Yang,” said Lacson, as he recalled Galvez’s response to the question of Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon that they are now dealing with Sinovac president Helen Yang, who is based in Hong Kong.

“He clearly replied to Sen. Drilon – Helen Yang who is based in HK. There are too many inconsistencies,” he said.

Lacson said even Health Secretary Francisco Duque III admitted to senators that they were dealing with Yang.

“Sec. Duque was also asked, ‘who are you talking to?’ He named Helen Yang. Why are they talking to the president of Sinovac, what happened? Why is it government-to-private now?”

Lacson also noted Galvez’s claim that there would be Sinovac delivery by Feb. 20, to which presidential spokesman Harry Roque was quoted as telling the public not to be “choosy.”

The senator said Galvez kept changing his answers to the same questions on the matter.

“Maybe out of our 100 questions only less than 50 of them were answered,” Lacson said.

He said senators would discuss among themselves whether there is a need for the Senate committee of the whole to convene again to discuss the matter.

“I think there are a lot of loose ends, and if we will prepare a committee report, there would be too little information. There are hanging questions that are not answered, so our committee report would also be useless,” he said.

Donation, or discounted?

At the hearing on Monday, Lacson said vaccine officials declared that the procurement of vaccine through COVAX would be subject to a huge price cut. But on Friday, they said vaccines would be given for free.

Lacson said even the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that vaccines acquired through COVAX are free.

COVAX is the global initiative to ensure rapid and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines for all countries, regardless of income level.

COVAX earlier announced that it had arrangements in place to access nearly two billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine candidates, on behalf of 190 participating economies.

“WHO said it was free. Why did they say, at first, it was not free – that there was only a discount. This is a donation not only of WHO but of rich countries,” Lacson said.

He said the confusion continued as other resource persons provided different answers to similar questions.

Lacson recalled that when Senate President Vicente Sotto III asked the Go Negosyo about the cost of the AstraZeneca vaccine, its official’s quick response was $5 each or about P250. Go Negosyo, a private corporation, is set to donate 50 percent of its planned vaccine procurement.

“When Sec. Galvez was asked, his immediate answer was about confidentiality disclosure agreement. We are the ones who appropriate the funds, why can’t we get such information? What is their real reason for not wanting to say the real price?” Lacson said.

He said there were reports about vaccine donations, including 44 million doses through COVAX, 8.5 million from the private sector, 14 million to be procured by local government units or a total of 66.5 million to be divided by two or 33.25 million vaccinees, as each person needs two doses.

“You will deduct it (33 million) from their target to inoculate about 70 million. The government will immediately save 33 million. The government will only spend for the remaining 36 million. So we ask, despite the big savings, why do we fund so much? Why do they keep the price secret – from becoming transparent?” Lacson noted.

“Not only that they’re not being honest, but they are also messing up the story. We are looking for information and it seems like they are confusing us deliberately,” said Lacson, as he recalled asking Galvez whether Sinovac, a Chinese vaccine, was part of COVAX, and the vaccine czar’s response was “it still is in the process of applying.”

Half-baked

Like Lacson, Sen. Imee Marcos said the information provided by the vaccine czar was not enough and half-baked. She said there is a need for the team of Galvez to go back to the drawing board and finalize the plan.

“We don’t have enough information. We are really having a hard time as Sec. Galvez has a different answer (to similar questions),” Marcos noted.

Aside from the conflicting cost of the vaccine, an issue Lacson raised, Marcos also lamented the time frame for the delivery of the vaccine.

“At first, they said that Sinovac will be delivered next month, but then they said we can still back out? I cannot understand,” Marcos pointed out.

She also noted that they earlier claimed that a few million will be available within one year and then they changed the timeframe to three years.

“I’m really confused. They said the procurement will go directly to LGUs and private corporations, then later we discovered that they (LGUs and companies) are still prohibited to manage the vaccines. From the Customs, the Department of Health will take over. So we got confused. We would want more information as the plan is a bit half-baked,” she pointed out.

On Friday at the hearing, Sen. Pia Cayetano reiterated her call for the national government to clarify how much it expects LGUs to shoulder for the purchase of COVID-19 vaccines.

“It’s still not clear to me how much you expect the LGUs to spend. I think that should be made very clear. LGUs will always want to provide for their constituents, but even for those that can afford, it is not clear regarding national support and to what extent,” Cayetano told Galvez and his team.

“There are many ways that (LGUs) can revive their economy and support their constituents. They could be providing subsidies for jeepney and tricycle drivers. They do not necessarily have to put all their funding into the vaccines, if the national government could commit to paying for such,” Cayetano stressed.

Sen. Richard Gordon, for his part, has proposed to train more Filipinos to administer vaccines as the Philippines looks to start rolling out its immunization plan in February.

“I will file a bill on Monday that during times of emergency or even there is no crisis, there should be training of vaccinators like dentists, veterinarians, medical technologists, and even those who do not have medical background,” he said.

“We can put to bear millions of our young people who may want to become doctors someday and can practice with vaccine, provided it’s under clinical supervision,” he added.

PANFILO LACSON
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