Gov’t pressed to rethink preference for Sinovac
MANILA, Philippines —Calls are mounting to have the government reconsider its “obvious” preference for the coronavirus vaccine of Sinovac BioTech despite its being less effective and more costly, with one opposition senator urging the Department of Health (DOH) to cancel the purchase of 25 million doses of the China-made COVID-19 shot.
The vaccine is called CoronaVac, but people always refer to it by the shorthand for the manufacturer’s name, Sinovac.
Sen. Francis Pangilinan asked the country’s COVID-19 managers and vaccination planners to reject CoronaVac as an option in the government’s multiplatform rollout of the vaccine, citing the latest reports about its unimpressive efficacy rate.
“Sinovac, with just over 50-percent efficacy is six times more expensive than AstraZeneca (of the United Kingdom), which in contrast shows 70-percent efficacy,” Pangilinan said in a post on Twitter.
“Sinovac is more expensive yet having almost 20-percent lower efficacy. Given these latest findings, we call on the DOH to cancel the purchase of Sinovac vaccines,” Pangilinan added.
Asked to elaborate, Pangilinan said it did not make sense to choose the more expensive and less effective brand.
“By rejecting Sinovac and selecting AstraZeneca or another vaccine with higher efficacy rates, we will be able to vaccinate millions more with better quality vaccines,” Pangilinan told the Inquirer in a Viber message.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson also took to Twitter to complain about government pronouncements that only Sinovac shots would be available to Filipinos from February until June, showing, he said, that the Chinese manufacturer was essentially the “chosen one.”
“Can somebody explain why preference is given to the second most expensive vaccine, has lower efficacy, a record of suspended clinical trials and has not even applied for EUA (emergency use authorization) over other vaccines that cost much less, more efficacious and are about to be granted their EUAs?” Lacson said.
“That said, the national government should expedite the procurement of all qualified and available vaccines. To borrow [presidential spokesperson] Harry Roque Jr.’s words, it should not be choosy in buying vaccines,” he said.
He also asked why Sinovac, a private Chinese company whose product’s efficacy is 50-70 percent, “appears to have the edge even over China’s state-owned Sinopharm, whose vaccine has a 79-86 percent efficacy and is used in the United Arab Emirates.”
“Sinovac is also the second most expensive vaccine at P3,629 [for] two doses,” he noted.
On Monday, the senators learned that the first batch of CoronaVac would be delivered on Feb. 20 but the manufacturer had not even applied for emergency use authorization, which is required for the rollout.
Emergency use permit
FDA Director General Eric Domingo admitted during the hearing of the Senate committee of the whole that Sinovac had not yet submitted an application for emergency use permit.
“They haven’t submitted to us. They might be applying next week or very soon,” Domingo told the body.
The head of the government’s vaccine program, Carlito Galvez Jr., said there were two “pathways” in vaccine procurement: financing and regulatory.
He said it was not necessary to perform the latter before the former was finalized, adding that this process did not preclude a “very rigorous supply agreement” with the supplier.
But Lacson said Galvez’s answers to the senators’ questions “only made it obvious that Sinovac is really the chosen one.”
On Wednesday, Galvez denied the government was favoring the Sinovac shot, saying one basis for selecting vaccines is they are already being used in their countries of origin and other countries as well. The Sinovac vaccine, he said, is already being used in China and has been approved for use in Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
As for prices, Galvez said there was the market price and there was the COVAX price. Through COVAX—the World Health Organization (WHO) procurement pool—the market prices could be lowered up to 300 percent, he said.
Reduced to ‘best price’
“I can’t reveal [the prices of the different vaccines]. Sinovac is in the middle. It’s cheaper than Moderna and other vaccines from the United States,” Galvez told a televised public briefing.
He said the Philippines, with help from the Chinese ambassador, received “fair treatment” from Sinovac, which reduced the cost of its vaccine to the “best price.”
Galvez said the vaccine of the US pharmaceutical company Pfizer may reach the Philippines earlier than the Sinovac shot through COVAX, which also involves the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness, and GAVI, a group that works for all countries to have equal access to vaccines.
Galvez said COVAX had selected Pfizer and representatives from GAVI would visit the country from Jan. 19 to 20 to receive the government’s application for eligibility. All interested parties must submit their requirements by Friday, he said.
“GAVI will inspect our area if we are ready for the Pfizer vaccine,” Galvez said, adding that the most important requirement is ultracool storage, as the Pfizer vaccine must be stored in temperatures between negative 80 degrees and negative 60 degress Celsius.
He said the Philippines would get 30 million doses through COVAX, but he did not say whether all those would be Pfizer.
He said the Sinovac vaccine would arrive on Feb. 20, by which time the manufacturer would have secured emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Once the Pfizer, Sinovac, and AstraZeneca vaccines arrive, Galvez said, the government will have a portfolio from which priority recipients and local governments can choose the shot they prefer.
Galvez said it was a “misconception” that local governments preferred the AstraZeneca vaccine. He said local governments ordered AstraZeneca because only the British company had accepted the tripartite agreement that the Philippine government had proposed for vaccine acquisition.
The local governments chose AstraZeneca, he said, because its vaccine costs only $5 per dose and the British Embassy and the Department of Foreign Affairs helped them get access to the shot.
The Philippines has seen a rise in new coronavirus infections in recent weeks, but it remains unclear whether the spike is due to social gatherings during the Christmas and New Year celebrations.
On Wednesday, the DOH reported 1,453 additional infections, bringing the overall number of confirmed COVID-19 cases to 492,700.
The DOH said 397 more patients had recovered, raising the total number of COVID-19 survivors to 458,523. But the death toll rose to 9,699 with the deaths of 146 more patients.
The deaths and recoveries left the country with 24,478 active cases, of which 84.9 percent were mild, 6.1 percent asymptomatic, 0.5 percent moderate, 3 percent severe, and 5.5 percent critical. —WITH REPORTS FROM JEROME ANING AND PATRICIA DENISE M. CHIU
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