Lawmakers: Missed Pfizer deal smells of ‘kickvac’
MANILA, Philippines — Sen. Kiko Pangilinan on Thursday said some government officials may be held liable for graft over the government’s failure to secure a deal for 10 million doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had helped to arrange for the Philippines.
In a statement, Pangilinan said the failure raised suspicion that the prospect of kickbacks might have motivated the government officials not to submit a document required by the US pharmaceutical giant.
“We just hope it’s not an issue of ‘kickvac’ that led to the ‘dropping of the ball’ in the vaccine procurement,” Pangilinan said.
“On the other hand, if it can be proved that the refusal to act within a reasonable time was intended to favor another party, then Section 3(f) of the antigraft law applies,” he said.
Pangilinan was commenting on news reports that Sen. Panfilo Lacson had named Health Secretary Francisco Duque III as the official who “dropped the ball” in the deal for 10 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine that Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. and Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Manuel “Babe” Romualdez had arranged with Pfizer with the help of Pompeo.
In a series of tweets on Tuesday, Locsin disclosed that he and Romualdez had arranged for the delivery of the vaccine with Pompeo’s help, with the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) bankrolling the purchase.
“That said, my thanks just the same to … Pompeo. We—Babe Romualdez and I—got 10 million doses of Pfizer financed by World Bank and ADB to be shipped thru FedEx to Clark (airport) in January,” Locsin said.
“BUT SOMEBODY DROPPED THE BALL. I have steel ball bearings. I just need a slingshot,” he added.
Locsin did not name the official who mishandled the deal, but Lacson, citing information from Romualdez, said on Wednesday night it was Duque and that the health chief failed to submit a confidentiality disclosure agreement (CDA) that would have allowed the deal to go through.
As a result of Duque’s failure, the Philippines missed the opportunity to get a COVID-19 vaccine as early as January, Lacson said. The opportunity went to Singapore instead, he said.
The senator said the negotiations with Pfizer started as early as July and that Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III assured Locsin and Romualdez that money would be made available for the purchase of the vaccine.
In a television interview on Thursday, Romualdez cited a “sense of urgency” at the time to sign the CDA but as it was taking too long for the government to sign it, he called the office of Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea to ask for help and learned that the matter was being handled by Duque’s office.
Last 3 minutes
“The Pfizer representative kept calling me following up … So there really was a sense of urgency, we needed to work on it quickly and unfortunately we failed to sign it,” the ambassador said.
“That’s why Secretary Locsin said somebody dropped the ball. In a way, it’s really like that, because the ball was here with us. It came from him. We passed it, but the ball got lost during the last three minutes,” he said.
Romualdez, however, said talks with Pfizer were still going on and that a vaccine delivery would most likely happen in mid-2021. But he acknowledged that the government had missed the chance to get the vaccine earlier.
Duque said he signed the CDA in October (See related story on this page), but Lacson said in a radio interview on Thursday that could be referring to later talks with Pfizer.
Pangilinan said the Senate would look into the neglect when it, sitting as a committee of the whole, inquires into the government’s vaccine program.
“These allegations of negligence or incompetence in the procurement of vaccines must not be left unchecked if we are to prevent a failure in the massive vaccine rollout,” he said.
“Failure due to corruption or incompetence in the vaccine rollout is not an option,” he added.
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said the matter was discussed during a meeting in Malacañang on Wednesday night and that President Rodrigo Duterte told Duque to explain his role in the negotiations with Pfizer.
Duque, according to Roque, defended himself in a “lively, animated and emotional” way, after which the President advised him to answer Locsin’s allegations in the same manner.
“I think from the overall demeanor of the President, he sees no major lapse because what is being discussed is a contract and Secretary Duque is not a lawyer. And no damage was done because we continue to negotiate with Pfizer,” Roque said at a press briefing
He also said that even if there was a statement that the Philippines was supposed to get the Pfizer vaccine in January, the truth was that wealthy countries had already secured Pfizer’s initial production of the vaccine.
But the Philippines still expects to get the vaccine later next year, Roque said.
“Let’s not speculate anymore. What’s important is that discussions continue and it looks like we will get Pfizer anytime between the second and third quarter of next year,” he said.
Roque also said the “conflicting opinions” of Locsin and Duque did not really matter because, in the end, the official in charge of procuring COVID-19 vaccines was Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. of the National Task Force Against COVID-19.
“Everybody could fight if they want. But the President made it clear there’s only one person in charge of getting the vaccine. It’s Secretary Galvez,” he said.
In the House of Representatives, lawmakers belonging to the Makabayan bloc are suspicious about Duque’s failure to sign the CDA in time to clinch the Pfizer deal.
Leaning on China vaccines
“President Duterte keeps talking about fighting corruption, but apparently even the vaccine procurement smells of corruption,” Bayan Muna Rep. Ferdinand Gaite told reporters at an online briefing on Thursday.
Gaite said the neglect might have something to do with Galvez’s earlier statement that the Philippines’ first COVID-19 vaccine would be China’s Sinovac, the most expensive of the candidate vaccines.
“Why is there a leaning on China vaccines?” the lawmaker asked.
Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate said the Makabayan bloc was “very much concerned” over issues surrounding the government’s vaccine procurement program.
“The reports these past days seem to show that there is pandemic profiteering on the issue of vaccine procurement,” Zarate said.
“We cannot understand the insistence of the administration on buying the very expensive Sinovac made by China,” he said. “We support the call to investigate this, especially on the appeal of health professionals on the [use of] Sinovac because there are still many questions regarding this vaccine,” he added. —WITH REPORTS FROM TINA G. SANTOS, LEILA B. SALAVERRIA, AND NESTOR CORRALES
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