Senate ends public hearing on COVID-19 vaccination program

Published January 15, 2021, 9:35 PM

by Vanne Elaine Terrazola

The Senate Committee of the Whole has wrapped up its inquiry on the government’s COVID-19 immunization program.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III

“After two exhaustive committee hearings, your Committee of the Whole believes that we were able to gather enough data and information to come up with sound and relevant recommendation that will give answers to some of the concerns, if not all of the concerns, of the public,” Senate President Vicente Sotto III said before ending the chamber’s inquiry on the matter Friday, January 15.

In the second hearing of the Committee of the Whole which lasted nearly nine hours, senators sought clarification from the implementers of the inoculation plan on their negotiations with pharmaceutical companies for the country’s vaccine supply, the timeline of its distribution, and the efficacy, safety and cost of the vaccines.

The lawmakers particularly delved further on the government’s initial agreement with Chinese drug maker Sinovac, which was reported to have already committed 25 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines for the Philippines.

Some senators have criticized the government for its alleged preference for Sinovac’s vaccine, which they secured amid questions on its cost and effectiveness, and ahead of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) approval of its emergency use.

National Task Force against COVID-19 chief and vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr. maintained in the hearing that the Duterte administration has not been favoring any particular country or brand of vaccine, assuring that their procurements are “not based on any political and financial interest.”

He later clarified that the country’s agreement with Sinovac is not yet final and is still subject to the vaccine expert panel’s final recommendation and the FDA’s issuance of an emergency use authorization, or EUA.

Galvez, however, refused to divulge to senators the prices of vaccines, saying it might compromise their negotiations with the manufacturers.

“We are reprimanded by the manufacturer and they said that we are in ongoing negotiations. Anyway, these prices will become public domain after the negotiation, considering that the prices [have] been negotiated in different countries also. They recommended that the CDA (confidentiality disclosure agreement) be honored considering it may complicate their negotiations also with other countries,” he said after Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri called for an executive session to discuss the cost of the vaccines.

“If we will say in public the prices, it will compromise the 140 million doses that we are getting, and all the companies will withdraw in our negotiation,” he warned.

Officials also invoked the non-disclosure deals when asked about the specific volume of vaccines that they plan to purchase from the pharmaceutical firms.

During the Senate’s January 11 hearing, Galvez said seven companies are expected to provide the country’s vaccine needs within this year.

Representatives from the private sector and local government units (LGUs), as well as as medical groups, were also given the opportunity to express their positions and other relevant information about the inoculation plan.

In the same hearing, senators reiterated their call to allow the private companies and LGUs to directly purchase from pharmaceutical firms to streamline the acquisition and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines in the country.

“We hope that the committee, through this hearing, was able to to address some of the public doubts and hesitation that would ultimately help in bringing back the confidence on the national vaccination system,” Sotto said.