Vaccine czar: PH can still back out of Sinovac deal
MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines can still back out of an agreement with a Chinese pharmaceutical company to supply the country with its coronavirus vaccine because the deal has not been sealed, the chief implementer of the government’s COVID-19 response told senators in a hearing on Friday.
Grilled by Sen. Nancy Binay and her colleagues about the administration’s apparent partiality for Sinovac Biotech’s vaccine despite its lower efficacy and higher cost, Carlito Galvez Jr. said the Chinese company could still be withdrawn from the government’s portfolio of sources of shots.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said in a television interview on Sunday that the government had “sealed the deal with Sinovac for 25 million [doses] with early 50,000 doses by February, 950,000 by March and 2 to 3 million in succeeding months ’til December with 25 million doses.”
At the resumption of the Senate inquiry into the vaccination program, Galvez, who is also head of the administration’s vaccination program, said the government had not yet paid Sinovac.
He said that it only secured an advance market commitment from the Chinese pharmaceutical company to “lock in” a certain number of doses for the country.
“So it is not a done deal? No backing out?” Binay asked.
“No,” Galvez replied.
He explained that no supply contract had been signed as the vaccine was still subject to a review by a government-led panel of experts and authorization from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
“So technically, we can choose not to purchase from Sinovac?” Binay continued.
“The answer to that is yes,” interjected Vince Dizon, deputy chief implementer of the government’s COVID-19 response.
“If the vaccine expert panel does not recommend [Sinovac], then the Philippine government will not purchase and will not administer the vaccine,” Dizon said.
‘Fair mix’ assured
Galvez said the interagency COVID-19 task force was “not favoring any one particular brand or country.”
“While we cannot yet disclose the number of orders, we are assuring the public that we will have a fair mix of vaccine options but we want to emphasize that … only those endorsed by the vaccine expert panel will be purchased,” he said.
The government had shortlisted seven drug manufacturers whose vaccines may be procured for mass inoculation: Sinovac of China, Gamaleya of Russia, AstraZeneca of the United Kingdom, and four pharmaceuticals from the United States – Moderna, Janssen, Novavax (with Serum Institute of India), and Pfizer (with BioNTech of Germany).
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted an emergency use authorization (EUA) to Pfizer and is reviewing a pending application by AstraZeneca.
Sinovac applied for EUA for its vaccine called Coronavac only this week. The FDA could not yet evaluate Sinovac’s application until it had submitted interim results of its Phase 3 trials, according to its director general Rolando Domingo.
Sen. Ping Lacson was suspicious about the figures released by Sinovac from its clinical trials in Brazil.
Instead of the earlier reported efficacy rate ranging from 50 percent to 90 percent, the senator said his office calculated only a 49.58 percent efficacy for Sinovac’s Coronavac following a formula from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
He asked Philippine Foundation for Vaccination Executive Director Lulu Bravo to comment on his finding, but the vaccine expert said it was difficult to make conclusions based only on one set of data.
“We need validation for the serious and moderate cases. I am not the only one who can calculate this – we need more minds,” Bravo said.
Asked by Senate President Vicente Sotto III if she would prescribe a vaccine with a 50-percent efficacy, the doctor replied that the 50-percent threshold was only set by the World Health Organization at the start of the pandemic.
She said the decision to use a vaccine with certain efficacy rates should depend on the severity of infection in a particular location.
“A 50-70-percent efficacy rate would be acceptable in a pandemic, when you have a severe incidence [in which] a 50-percent efficacy would be enough to have that kind of protection,” Bravo said.
Easing China fears
In a radio interview, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque on Friday tried to allay apprehensions about the Chinese vaccine.
“Do not worry because if you would look, everyday in your life, almost all of the items you are using are made in China. That is the reality,” he said in a radio interview.
He said the bulk of the AstraZeneca vaccines that local governments and private companies had ordered would arrive in 2022.
“If you are healthy and are ready to wait, you could use that. But our warning is, remember that there is a new variant that is more transmissible,” Roque said. “If I were you, without forcing you, get vaccinated because it is better to have protection than to have none.”
Besides its efficacy, questions about Sinovac’s pricing also was raised during the Senate hearing.
Galvez, citing confidentiality agreements, declined to disclose the official price offered by Sinovac to the government, but he denied reports that Coronavac was the second most expensive in the administration’s choices.
Based on figures presented by the Department of Health (DOH) to the Senate finance panel last year, two doses of Coronavac would cost P3,629.50, making it the most expensive vaccine next only to Moderna.
Oversight, not politics
Also on Friday, Lacson called out Galvez for his earlier comments accusing some senators, including himself and Sen. Francis Pangilinan, of politicizing the vaccine issue and demonizing the Sinovac brand.
“Let me assure Secretary Galvez, there is no politics in this hearing. We call it an oversight, or check and balance, being exercised by a coequal branch of government,” said Lacson, who called Sinovac “the chosen one.”
Sen. Imee Marcos told reporters in a text message there was a “need to determine” why Sinovac was the first to be approved by the COVID-19 task force despite its high price and low efficacy rate.
“Because of these developments, can anyone blame the people for asking SINOVACumita (who profited)?!” she said.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said officials must make “every effort” to gain the people’s trust, warning that favoring a particular brand would not help boost public confidence.
He said “the insistence or the preference for Sinovac cannot be denied and will not augur well for building up the confidence of the people in our ability to address this pandemic.”
Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez on Friday said the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) would be formulating guidelines on how micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) could order their own vaccines.
In a Laging Handa briefing, Lopez said that Galvez asked DTI for help in consolidating a list of MSMEs that would like to order vaccines.
There are more than 1 million registered businesses in the country as of 2019, 99.5 percent of which are MSMEs according to the DTI, citing data from the Philippine Statistics Authority. —WITH REPORTS FROM LEILA B. SALAVERRIA AND ROY STEPHEN C. CANIVEL
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