Government wants vaccines declared as state assets

Paolo Romero - The Philippine Star
Government wants vaccines declared as state assets
Officials of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) – at the resumption of the Senate inquiry into the government’s mass vaccination plan – sought the immediate passage of a measure that would make it easy for the government to import and distribute vaccine doses.
AFP / Vincenzo Pinto

MANILA, Philippines — The government wants Congress to immediately pass a law that will declare COVID-19 vaccines as state assets to ensure control over the supply of serums amid the scramble among local government units (LGUs) and private companies to secure doses for their constituents and workers.

Officials of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) – at the resumption of the Senate inquiry into the government’s mass vaccination plan – sought the immediate passage of a measure that would make it easy for the government to import and distribute vaccine doses.

Vaccine czar Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. said the measure could also include allocation for an indemnification fund for vaccinees who may suffer from adverse effects as all COVID-19 vaccines are still in phase 3 trials.

“We hope we could enact a law urgently needed for the COVAX vaccination of 20 percent of our population… to declare COVID-19 vaccines as state assets for strict government control,” Galvez told the specially convened committee of the whole chaired by Senate President Vicente Sotto III.

The official was referring to the World Health Organization (WHO)’s initiative of pooling vaccine resources to ensure equitable distribution. The Philippines is expected to obtain some 44 million doses of vaccines for 22 million Filipinos for free from the COVAX facility.

Galvez told the hearing the initial batch of vaccines from COVAX would likely be from Pfizer.

He also asked that Congress, through the bill, allow LGUs to make advance market payments to vaccine manufacturers as the country’s procurement law prohibits them to do so when the specified prices as well as delivery dates are not set.

He said the bill should also exempt all vaccine procurements from all taxes and customs duties so that doses could be released immediately from ports and distributed as quickly as possible to ensure their efficacy.

Most vaccines require below freezing temperatures for transport and storage, including Pfizer’s, which have to be stored at -70 degrees Celsius.

The IATF’s move to bar LGUs and the private sector from directly procuring vaccines has been one of the most debated issues in the last three hearings of the committee.

Senators warned that the national government’s monopolizing the procurement of vaccines was a deadly form of red tape as COVID-19 kills some 25 Filipinos every day.

The delay in the vaccination rollout is also delaying the country’s economic recovery as foreign rating agencies have warned, senators pointed out.

Some LGUs with financial resources, like Quezon City, Manila and Las Piñas City, have already forged agreements for the procurement of vaccines.

Galvez and IATF chairman Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, however, stressed that as no vaccine has obtained full commercial clearance but only emergency use authorization (EUA), the national government must intervene through tripartite agreements with vaccine maker and with LGUs or the private sector that seek to procure the injections.

The officials also said there is a need for accountability as well as tracking after the vaccines are injected.

Galvez vowed to publicly disclose all the details of the negotiations as well as the prices, which are currently held in secret under confidentiality disclosure agreements, as soon as the deals are finalized.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has already granted an EUA to Pfizer and is in the process of reviewing the applications of others, including those from Beijing-based Sinovac Biotech’s CoronaVac, Sputnik vaccine of Russia’s Gamaleya, British-Swedish AstraZeneca and Covaxin and Novavax, both from India.

Allow vaccine donations

Sen. Francis Tolentino said the government must also find ways to allow and facilitate the entry of donated vaccines as the rules in the Bureau of Customs make the process of releasing donations tedious.

Tolentino said the country is party to several agreements that allow foreign entities to make donations and that there could be well-meaning balikbayans and Filipino-American groups that want to send free vaccines to Filipinos in small volumes.

“What if the Cavite association in California wants to send vaccines to Cavite? What if the US military’s Walter Reed Medical Center wants to donate to V. Luna (Armed Forces Medical Center)?” the senator asked.

He suggested to Duque that he immediately draw up guidelines to facilitate such donations, including the volumes that may be allowed entry.

FDA director general Rolando Domingo, however, said there must be clearance first before donated vaccines are allowed, including having the DOH receive them.

“Why should it be circuitous? This is an emergency situation. You should be open-minded instead of making things complicated,” Sen. Panfilo Lacson told Domingo.

“This is critical because there are many associations abroad that may donate vaccines to their sister cities in the Philippines. Would it not be more practical to ensure the goods reach the intended recipients directly under strict supervision and guidance by health authorities, instead of coursing the goods through the Department of Health and having the DOH distribute them?” Lacson said.

He said many LGUs already have their own cold storage facilities for the vaccines, as their local leaders had the foresight to act accordingly.

Allowing such donated vaccines to go directly to the LGUs instead of having to go through the logistical requirements of the DOH and the IATF would also avoid the prospect of double handling and additional costs, he added.


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