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Colossal irresponsibility

Editorial, Philippine Daily Inquirer / December 19, 2020


The Duterte administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be a series of air balls, the latest of which, according to government officials themselves, is its failure to secure a reliable, affordable vaccine as early as next month. For a government that has pinned its hopes on a vaccine to be able to recover somehow from the pandemic and a crippling economic slump, its most recent misplay amounts to a colossal, unbelievable case of irresponsibility.

Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. first tweeted that “somebody dropped the ball” in facilitating an agreement with Pfizer that could have helped the country secure at least 10 million doses of the vaccine by January at the earliest. Sen. Panfilo Lacson eventually revealed that it was Health Secretary Francisco Duque III’s “indifference” that caused the failure to submit a crucial document—the confidentiality disclosure agreement (CDA)—required by Pfizer.

The accusation has sent the health secretary—who has faced repeated calls for his resignation over the mishandling of the pandemic—hemming and hawing. “There’s no such thing that I did not act quick enough,” Duque said in an interview with ANC’s “Headstart” last Dec. 17. “The thing is, you go through a process, when you go through a process you cannot just be hurrying things… You have to be prudent and cautious especially since you’re talking about a brand-new and novel vaccine.”

Duque said the Pfizer vaccine uses the mRNA technology, which has “never been tried or tested,” and that it is his duty as a doctor to “ensure the safety of our vaccines.” The “back and forth” on the document between the Department of Health (DOH) and other government agencies took, by his account, four months, from the time Pfizer provided the Philippine government an overview up to the time Duque signed the agreement—but only after it took two months for the Office of the Executive Secretary to determine that it should be the DOH signing off on such a crucial document.

The opportunity to secure the Pfizer vaccine eventually went to Singapore, which expects to receive the first doses later this month—the first Asian country to do so.

Officials have since gone on to say that negotiations with Pfizer are still ongoing, although previous statements indicated that the government’s top choice is a vaccine from China’s Sinovac, CoronaVac, which is expected to be delivered by the first quarter next year.

Duque’s invocation of prudence and caution to justify his actions is curious, because CoronaVac is still undergoing the third and crucial stage that would determine not only its efficacy but also the side effects, while, on the other hand, the Pfizer vaccine has shown a 95-percent efficacy rate according to its Phase 3 trial data. The Pfizer vaccine has been approved for emergency use in the United States and has also secured approval in the United Kingdom.

There are indeed many other vaccine choices, several of which are in fact cheaper than the Sinovac vaccine, which costs P3,629 for two doses. The cheapest is Novavax (P366), developed by a small American company, of which 10.7 million advance orders have been secured by New Zealand; AstraZeneca (P610), whose early clinical trials are said to have shown good immune response; and the UN-backed COVAX Facility (P854), which even Cambodia, China’s staunchest ally in the region, has opted for and will provide—for free—to its citizens.

So, as observers have noted, why the seeming “fixation” on a Chinese vaccine given the other choices in the market? Health reform advocate Dr. Anthony Leachon pointed at the “unusual speed” with which the government has processed the approval to secure 25 million doses of CoronaVac despite it not having regulatory documents yet, whereas other vaccines have already published their results in peer-reviewed journals. Leachon’s comments prompted a bizarre broadside from presidential spokesperson Harry Roque, who, instead of clarifying the issue, lashed out at Leachon, saying President Duterte had repeatedly cursed the former adviser to the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases for his temerity to speak up (“kung anu-ano sinasabi mo…”), but that these had been edited out of the President’s weekly pre-taped briefings.

“What is the game plan?” asked Sen. Francis Pangilinan, echoing the concern foremost in the minds of Filipinos as the country continues to lag behind Asian neighbors in its response to the pandemic. The Duterte administration cannot duck its responsibility to provide answers: Its COVID-19 vaccination program would cost taxpayers P82.5 billion, a budget that would cover only 22 million people for inoculation with CoronaVac, compared with 135 million if it’s AstraZeneca, and 225 million if it’s Novavax. The World Health Organization’s recommendation for achieving herd immunity is to vaccinate 70 percent of the population (about 75 million of 107 million Filipinos). The way Malacañang is going about this momentous task, however, that may well be asking for the moon.#

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