‘Monkey wrench,’ or someone forgot?

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - February 17, 2021 - 12:00am

In a mad rush to acquire at the soonest possible time vaccines to stop the spread of the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in our country, many basic to-do first steps were obviously overlooked, if not forgotten. And these first to-do steps were apparently still not being done up to now and are coming out as the cause of delays in the scheduled delivery of the anti-COVID vaccines in the Philippines.

We agree the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic was indeed unprecedented. Every country was caught unaware because no one expected this deadly flu-like disease could spread so far and wide, and fast. However, this should not be a reason why more than one year after the outbreak, our government officials are still telling us the first ever anti-COVID vaccines to arrive in our country will be delayed again.

No wonder there have been so much rumored underground or black market supply of anti-COVID vaccines here in our country reportedly coming from China.

Up to now, Philippine government authorities supposed to be in charge and synchronizing their efforts, in fact, are still scrambling to procure anti-COVID vaccines. This is not to denigrate the leadership of National Task Force (NTF) on the government’s anti-COVID response, chief implementer Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr.

Quoting Xinhua News Agency, Reuters reported China has started the crackdown on criminals taking advantage of their anti-COVID vaccines developed by Sinopharm and Sinovac. According to the state-run Xinhua news agency, Chinese law enforcement authorities arrested 70 suspects last week in 21 vaccine-related cases, many of which reportedly surfaced during the initial phases of the rollout of their anti-COVID vaccines. Dozens of the arrests reportedly were related to smuggling of Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines earlier rolled out to certain hospitals in China as well as alleged production and distribution of “fake” coronavirus vaccines, price gouging and illegal inoculations.

As concurrently the designated “vaccine czar,” Galvez has been given the herculean task to roll out of the government’s vaccination program with no Filipinos being left out. But Galvez could only do so much to speed up the cogs of the government’s vaccination program if the basic to-do things are not put in place first.

Now, we are hearing the pharmaceuticals demand an “indemnification clause” to protect them from any legal suit in case of adverse events, or the side effects that their anti-COVID vaccines may cause to vaccinees.

This is because all anti-COVID vaccines so far developed are only on third phase of clinical trials. But the vaccine-makers were assured by the World Health Organization (WHO) they would be issued with emergency authority to use (EAU) because the COVID-19 pandemic is classified as a public health emergency. The WHO required though all pharma companies to secure the EAU from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of their respective countries and in countries where they will supply their anti-COVID vaccines.

Anti-COVID vaccines developed by pharma companies from Pfizer-BioNtech and Moderna from the United States (US), AstraZeneca from the United Kingdom (UK), Sinovac and Sinopharm of China, Gameleya’s Sputnik-V of Russia, among them have so far gotten the EAU from their respective countries’ FDAs.

Affected by this indemnification clause is the procurement of 117,000 doses anti-COVID vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech at the COVAX Facility a global initiative of the WHO to supply COVID-19 vaccines to low-income countries like the Philippines. However, Galvez disclosed yesterday he has already gotten the guarantee from Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez on the availability of P500 million for indemnification funds required by the vaccine-makers.

Despite this latest delay, Galvez reported to President Duterte during the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Management of Emerging and Infectious Disease (IATF-MEID) last Monday night that the Philippines remains on track to give COVID-19 vaccines to 70 million Filipinos within this year in a best case scenario.

“There is no more monkey wrench?” the President directly asked Galvez. To which the “vaccine czar” retorted: “There is none. We are almost okay.”

Galvez explained the indemnification agreement would have to be signed also with the COVAX Facility and each COVID-19 vaccine-makers supplying the COVAX Facility, including both Pfizer and AstraZeneca.

By stroke of good luck, the WHO granted emergency use listing (EUL) to AstraZeneca vaccines. Our country’s FDA welcomed this EUL as something that will pave the way for the delivery of AstraZeneca vaccines to the Philippines within this month under WHO’s COVAX Facility. This is in addition to the EAU issued here in our country to AstraZeneca last Jan. 28. FDA Director General Eric Domingo cited the EAU attests to the safety and efficacy of the anti-COVID vaccines at this stage.

At least, we have these 17 million doses of AstraZeneca that have been secured under the Tripartite Agreement signed by Galvez with the private sector-led “Dose of Hope” organized by presidential adviser on entrepreneurship Joey Concepcion. Under this agreement signed last month, private companies and local government units (LGUs) that donated the advance payment for AstraZeneca vaccines will give half of their anti-COVID vaccines to the national government.

Some 114 LGU executives under the umbrella of the League of Cities of the Philippines (LCP) were now asking President Duterte to issue an executive order to authorize them advance payment for COVID-19 vaccines they procured for their constituents. The advance payments for tripartite agreements they signed for vaccines are due on Feb. 24.

So is this a “monkey wrench?” Or someone forgot to do his homework on what needs to be done first?

Stepping on the plate, both the Senate and the House of Representatives have acted swiftly to pass the required laws. But the legislative process takes a lot of time. Filipinos could no longer afford further delay to get the vaccine jabs.

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