No sea row compromises in Sino vaccine talksː Galvez
MANILA, Philippines — The head of the national COVID-19 vaccination program stumbled twice during a Senate inquiry on the vaccine rollout, accidentally admitting that he had lied about the price of a Chinese-made vaccine and urging the Philippines to set aside its “differences” with China in the West Philippine Sea to win the battle against the pandemic.
Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr., who is also chief implementer of the national COVID-19 task force, quickly corrected his twin blunders at the hearing on Friday where senators pressed him on the lingering questions about the cost and efficacy of the shots from the Chinese pharmaceutical company Sinovac Biotech, the secrecy surrounding the deal and Beijing’s “vaccine diplomacy.”
In the early part of the seven-hour hearing, the third and last since the Senate opened its inquiry on Jan. 11, Sen. Risa Hontiveros wanted to get an assurance from Galvez that there would be “no strings attached” to any vaccine deal with the Chinese and that the government would continue to uphold the country’s interests in the West Philippine Sea.
Galvez explained that during a pandemic, “the global interest is to save humanity” and every country wanted to help solve the crisis.
“Our differences in the West Philippine Sea should be set aside because this is a global pandemic, and our problem is a global menace,” he said.
The senator said she was shocked at how Galvez responded. “This is not a quid pro quo,” she said.
Galvez immediately backpedaled. “We would like to make a clarification. We will not compromise on our state,” he said.
He stressed that vaccine selection would be “science-based,” suggesting that China-made shots approved by experts should be accepted.
Hontiveros insisted that the government should not compromise the country’s strategic goals and foreign policy objectives in procuring vaccines.
“Just because we’re buying Chinese vaccines or accepting donations or gifts from China, we should set aside our claims on territories in the West Philippine Sea?,” she said, noting that despite the raging pandemic “China remains resolute in asserting unrightful ownership of our territories.”
Midway through the hearing, Sen. Grace Poe took her turn to cite the discrepancy between the high price of about P3,600 quoted by the Department of Health for two shots of CoronaVac, the vaccine produced by Sinovac, and Galvez’s insistence that the doses cost much lower.
“So basically you don’t want to divulge the real price, so you’re lying to the public?” Poe asked Galvez.
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied, stunning the senator.
“I find it a little discomforting that you openly admitted that you’re lying to the public, although I know maybe you can justify it by saying it’s for the greater good, so that we don’t lose our contracts,” the senator said.
Galvez tried to interrupt Poe to explain.
“Ma’am, ma’am, I’m not lying to the public,” he said. “I’m saying, in order to correct the impression of the public that we’re overpricing, we just stated an indicative price of not more than P700.”
Poe pressed the former military chief: “But, sir, with all due respect, I thought I asked you that, ‘so, you basically lied to the public?’ And you said ‘yes.’”
“No, ma’am,” Galvez said, stammering as he tried to explain that the published prices were “incorrect considering the real negotiated price.”
Still, he refused to disclose the price at which the government would purchase the Chinese vaccine. The government earlier announced it was planning to buy 25 million doses of Sinovac’s vaccine.
During budget deliberations last year, the DOH told the Senate finance panel that two doses of the Sinovac vaccine would cost P3,629.50, making it the second most expensive of about five candidate vaccines that have been developed.
According to Galvez, that was just the “market price” which was different from the negotiated price between governments, he told Poe.
In lieu of a proposed executive session with senators where he was to disclose details about the negotiations with Sinovac, Galvez briefed Senate President Vicente Sotto III, Senators Panfilo Lacson and Ronald dela Rosa, and Baguio Mayor Benjamin Magalong, who is in charge of national contact tracing efforts, on the progress of his negotiations with Sinovac.
President Duterte instructed Galvez to give the briefing, according to Lacson.
Kept secret, for now
The Senate leadership decided to keep the terms of the Philippines’ impending deal with Sinovac secret, at least until the signing of the contract.
Galvez earlier told the hearing that revealing the negotiated prices might jeopardize the negotiations. “This is the last thing we would like to happen,” he said.
“To put clarity to the national vaccination roadmap, I’d also like to put on record that I recognize the oversight powers of the Senate … but I would like to assure our esteemed senators that all negotiations are above board and free of corruption,” Galvez said.
He promised to publicly disclose the price of CoronaVac once the supply contract agreement was signed.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon invoked the constitutional right of the people to information on matters of public concern in raising the issue of vaccine prices, but accepted the decision of the Senate leadership.
But some senators were uncomfortable with keeping the price secret.
In a message to the Inquirer, Poe said the record of her exchange with Galvez, including his accidental admission of lying, “speaks for itself.”
The justification for not revealing the prices of the vaccines “is quite absurd because the other countries will eventually figure out the prices at the end,” she said. “In fact, we have seen other countries publishing their vaccine prices. So, what use is there to hide it now?”
Sen. Francis Pangilinan said he was worried that local governments and other government agencies could now “wrongly conclude” that price lists were confidential.
Finance Undersecretary Mark Dennis Joven agreed, adding that that was precisely the reason the government was committing to disclose the pricing only after the supply agreement had been signed.
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