Duque: Pfizer was keen to ‘prioritize’ PH, but no details set
MANILA, Philippines — Health Secretary Francisco Duque III on Friday said he learned that with help from the Trump administration, the American pharmaceutical company Pfizer would “prioritize” the Philippines in getting its vaccines, but the plan did not include firm details like the shipment schedules or the number of doses to be supplied.
Duque has been under fire for allegedly “dropping the ball” on getting Pfizer’s vaccine after Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. and the Philippine ambassador to Washington Jose Manuel Romualdez opened talks as early as July with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the American drug maker for a supposed shipment of 10 million doses of its vaccines to the country by January.
He told the Inquirer that during a virtual meeting sometime in June or July, Locsin and Romualdez informed government officials that they were “able to get some kind of preference [from the] Trump administration that Pfizer will provide the vaccines.”
“It was very general, nothing specific. There was no mention of any definitive amount. It was just said that Pfizer will prioritize the Philippines,” Duque said in a phone interview.
Among the Cabinet officials who took part in that meeting were Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III and National Task Force Against COVID-19 chief implementer Carlito Galvez Jr., he said.
Duque said the plan must have been the US government’s expression of “goodwill” toward the Philippines.
He said, however, that even with the Trump administration’s “political accommodation,” all candidate vaccines, including Pfizer’s, would still have to go through the country’s regulatory processes.
Apart from securing clearance from the vaccine expert panel and the ethics review board as well as the approval of the Food and Drug Administration, the vaccine would also have to be greenlighted for purchase by the Health Technology Assessment Council. All of these are requirements under the universal health care law.
“They will be assessed again on a different set of parameters, such as cost-effectiveness, practicability of implementation,” Duque said.
The vaccine developed by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech has an efficacy rate of 95 percent, but it needs to be stored in a freezer with a temperature of -70 degrees Celsius or lower.
Duque said he was warned two weeks ago by Sen. Koko Pimentel III to “be careful” in ordering the Pfizer vaccine due to a lack of ultralow freezers in public health facilities.
“We are all aware of all of these limitations. There really needs to be a process and science behind each [decision],” he said.
In September, Pfizer representatives met with the Department of Health (DOH) and other government officials to discuss possible arrangements once the vaccine becomes available.
Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said it was the “first meeting” with Pfizer and discussions centered around the confidentiality disclosure agreement (CDA).
She pointed out that there was no mention of any timeline nor supply volumes to be made available to the Philippines.
“This was really for data sharing. The CDA was so that we could start our talks and our experts could look at their documents, [and that] any information that we talk about can’t be disclosed to anybody and to the public,” Vergeire said.
‘Stop blame game’
“The CDA didn’t contain operational and technical details. It didn’t include how many doses, what period, and if there will already be deliveries. There’s no such thing. This was an initial data sharing [agreement], signed in October,” she added.
Taguig-Pateros Rep. Alan Peter Cayetano, the ex-Speaker, called on officials to “stop the blame game.”
“Let’s focus on the remedy. So whether or not someone dropped the ball, there’s a proper time for that. But it’s clear that we cannot drop the ball,” he said.
“For me, criticism serves a purpose at a certain point in time,” Cayetano said. “But if it’s criticism all the time, they may not be able to form a plan. So let’s give them a chance.”
Locsin said someone had dropped the ball and the country ended up losing 10 million doses of the vaccine that supposedly went to Singapore instead. Sen. Panfilo Lacson, quoting Romualdez, said Locsin was referring to Duque after the health secretary failed to submit a CDA that would have allowed the deal to go through.
Cayetano said there were “mistakes and balls that have been dropped” in the implementation of the social amelioration program and even in the DOH.
He said people should be held accountable but not before the job was done because it would be “difficult to change men in the middle of the battle.”
“But I’m reminding them, we will all be judged, especially us in the government and especially the President, on how we roll out the vaccination program,” Cayetano said. “If you make it three to five years and there is no livelihood or businesses cannot normalize, the virus may not kill you but hunger or poverty will. If Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, UK, Japan, US has a time frame of one to two years, we cannot have a time frame which is far from that.”
House Assistant Minority Lader and ACT Teachers Rep. France Castro said the government should fully disclose why it chose to secure 25 million doses of the vaccine made by Sinovac Biotech, a Chinese company. She said the Chinese vaccine had a lower efficacy rate than the vaccine made by Pfizer or Moderna, another US pharmaceutical company.
“The people must know how the Duterte administration came to the conclusion that the Sinovac vaccine would be the best for the Filipino people despite it being more expensive and have yet to finish trials,” she said. —WITH A REPORT FROM JULIE M. AURELIO
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