HEADLINE: DU30’S CORRUPTION- MANILA- Philippine Senate probe foils vaccine overpricing

VACCINE PRODUCTION A worker inspects a batch of vaccines produced at a Beijing factory built by Sinovac, one of 11 Chinese companies approved to carry out clinical trials of potential coronavirus vaccines, in this photo taken in September 2020. —AFP

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MANILA, Philippines — The government could have lost some P16.8 billion from overpriced coronavirus vaccines had the Senate not inquired into ongoing negotiations for the Sinovac shot, which has been chosen by Malacañang, Sen. Panfilo Lacson said on Monday.

In a privilege speech, Lacson said testimony during the two-day inquiry by the committee of the whole would indicate an attempt to overprice the vaccine.
“Again, when there is an attempt at overpricing, isn’t it also logical to think [that somebody would make a lot of money]?” he said.

The senator was referring to government claims that it had been able to lower the cost of the Sinovac vaccine, bringing it at par with prices in other Southeast Asian countries.\

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$350M price difference

Lacson cited figures earlier released by the Department of Health (DOH) that the government was set to spend P3,629, or about $38, for two doses of the Sinovac vaccine.

“In any case, if indeed it is true that the government was able to bring down the cost from P3,600 to P650 per dose, or at least 60 percent lower than the previous DOH figures, well and good,” he said.

“Imagine this … if this Sinovac controversy was not tackled in the Senate, and assuming that the deal for the original price of P3,629 or $38 for two doses, or P1,814 equivalent to $19 per shot, against the $5 in Thailand, easily the price difference of 25 million doses would fetch $350 million or P16.8 billion,” he said.

While he conceded that he was not ready to accuse anyone in the government of involvement in corruption in the vaccine deals, Lacson said the discrepancy in the prices as shown by the DOH figures and the published cost of the Sinovac shot in other countries “defies logic.”

“When the Pfizer issue came about, we asked: ‘Who dropped the ball?’ We haven’t even gotten a clear answer … and now, on the Sinovac vaccine, we ask, ‘Who dropped the price?’” Lacson said.

He was referring to his earlier accusation that Health Secretary Francisco Duque III was responsible for the Philippines’ failed deal to secure at least 10 million doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine this month.

Lacson expressed disgust that the Senate had been tricked by its invited resource persons who refused to answer some of the lawmakers’ questions.

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Unanswered questions

“Instead of having the information needed to aid us in our legislative work mainly because some people [on] the panel of our resource persons who are in charge of the vaccine program were not forthright and honest in their responses to the questions raised by the members of this august chamber,” he said.

He questioned the reluctance of Carlito Galvez Jr., who handles the vaccine procurement, and other health officials to respond to queries posed by senators on the Sinovac vaccine, CoronaVac, which he described as the “best and worst-defended” brand during the hearings.

“I could not understand for the life of me why we are being kept in the dark when it comes to our price negotiations with Sinovac, while our neighboring countries could not be more transparent about it,” Lacson said.

He expressed dismay that the government had “wasted efforts on unneeded and demoralizing matters” instead of trying to build confidence in the vaccination program among the people.

“We should start with transparency, openness and competence for the best interest of our people. They have the right to be informed of their options—to choose, or to refuse. They deserve no less,” he said.

Lacson questioned the Duterte administration’s “undue preference” for CoronaVac, following pronouncements from Galvez that the government was set to launch an inoculation program with this vaccine in February, despite its lack of the required emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

In a Zoom press briefing on Monday, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon slammed government officials’ refusal to disclose the prices of the COVID-19 vaccines the government is negotiating to procure from the manufacturers.

The government, Drilon said, cannot hide behind supposed confidentiality agreements to deprive the public of critical information about the vaccines because it is taxpayer money that it will use to buy those vaccines.

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Disclose prices

Drilon urged Galvez to disclose the prices of the vaccines.

“Secretary Galvez, [it] is your obligation to inform the people. These are public funds. The people have the power to get information in line with what is provided for by the Constitution and with doctrines laid down by the Supreme Court,” the senator said.

Officials, including Galvez, have refused to disclose the prices of the vaccines, invoking confidentiality agreements with the pharmaceutical companies whose shots have yet to be tested here and approved by the FDA. 

The administration has shown preference for CoronaVac despite its being one of the most expensive among the shots governments in Southeast Asia are getting to inoculate their citizens.

CoronaVac costs $60 (P3,000) for the two-dose regimen, but the price varies from country to country for unknown reasons.

The Bangkok Post reported on Saturday that CoronaVac costs $5 (P240) per dose in Thailand and $17 (P817) in Indonesia. In India, CoronaVac costs $14 (P673), the newspaper India Today reported on Tuesday.

In a television interview on Monday, Galvez disputed those prices, saying they were “very erroneous” and highly improbable.

But he maintained that he could not disclose the price of the CoronaVac vaccine the government had negotiated with the manufacturer because it might compromise the deals the country had made with other vaccine makers.

Galvez gave assurance, however, that the Sinovac vaccine would cost less than P700 per dose here.

“The real market price of [the] Sinovac [vaccine] is $26.50. The P3,629 on social media is the price of [the] Sinopharm [vaccine]. That’s why we chose [the] Sinovac [vaccine], because it’s much cheaper than Sinopharm,” Galvez said.

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‘Very unrealistic’

He described the $5 price as “very unrealistic,” as trade and customs duties cost manufacturers $2.50 to $3 per dose.

The government has said it is procuring 25 million doses of CoronaVac. Under questioning by Sen. Nancy Binay during the Senate hearing on Friday, Galvez said the government had not yet paid for the order and that it was not yet a done deal.

But on Monday, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said there was no backing out of the deal with Sinovac. 

“When there is already a meeting of the mind when it comes to consent, object and consideration, as per our New Civil Code, we already have an obligation,” Roque told a news briefing.

He said it was an obligation subject to “suspensive condition,” or dependent on something that may or may not happen.

It’s as good as a contract, but the purchase is subject to agreed upon conditions, such as FDA approval of the vaccine, he said.

With reports from Jeannette I. Andrade and Leila B. Salaverria

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