Lacson calls for transparency, honesty in vaccine program

Published January 19, 2021, 3:34 PM

by Mario Casayuran

The controversy involving coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccines from Sinovac, a privately-owned Chinese firm, should provide a lesson on honesty and transparency for officials in the program, Senator Panfilo M. Lacson on Tuesday said.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson (Joseph Vidal/ Senate PRIB)

Lacson, chairman of the Senate national defense and security committee, said that had the officials been forthright about the conditions of negotiations with Sinovac early on, there would have been no speculations or suspicions about the matter.

“If they had been more forthright and honest in their responses in our first hearing, hindi mafo-focus sa Sinovac (it will not be focused on Sinovac),” he said in an interview on ANC, stressing that while Congress – the Senate and House of Representatives – are willing partners of the executive department, in return, lawmakers “need to be informed also what happened to the appropriations we gave you.”

“When the Senate hearings raised more questions than answers about Sinovac, our officials were both tongue-tied and stuttering, leaving us with a string of flip-flopping pronouncements,” Lacson noted in his privilege speech on the issue Monday.

Also, Lacson debunked insinuations that some senators had personal or political motivations in the hearings.

“I haven’t heard of any senator who has expressed preference for the Pfizer vaccine or any brand for that matter,” he said, adding that “what we are doing in the Senate is an exercise of our oversight function over the appropriations laws that we passed, particularly on the purchase of the vaccines.”

“There is no personal or political agenda involved in our inquiry as insinuated by Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. earlier.  Most of us who participated in the public hearings of the Committee of the Whole merely want to get straightforward and honest responses from the concerned authorities so we will be informed for our future reference in our legislative work. Instead, the resource persons were groping, inconsistent, flip flopping and even evasive in their responses – hence our misgivings and apprehensiveness,” he added.

He recalled that when the Senate conducted inquiries on the anomalies in the Bureau of Customs, Bureau of Corrections and Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) and the Department of Health, “enough information was gathered that led to the filing of criminal and administrative cases by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC), and could have possibly tightened the noose on those responsible for the pillage of public funds or prevented them to further bleed dry the public coffers.”

“Isn’t that how the executive and legislative departments work as a team in fighting corruption?” he said.

Lacson noted the suspicion of senators – and netizens – was aroused when the officials would not disclose pricing and other conditions of the negotiations with Sinovac, a privately owned Chinese firm. The officials also were not forthright in their answers during Senate hearings last week.

He added it was only recently that vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr. declared an “indicative price” of P700 for the Sinovac vaccines.

“If at the outset during our first hearing last Jan. 11, he already declared we can get Sinovac vaccines for P700 thereabouts, then that’s the end of the story,” he said.

“So the controversy is their own doing. It’s not the Senate, it’s not the senators. We’re performing our job, oversight. We did it in the Bureau of Customs, PhilHealth, and Bureau of Corrections. May nangyayari naman pag nag-iimbestiga kami in aid of legislation,” he added. (Something positive comes out during our investigations in aid of legislation.)

On the other hand, Lacson pointed out Galvez and Health Secretary Francisco Duque III did not seem surprised the Philippines was to receive 44 million free doses of vaccines through the COVAX facility, but did not disclose it if they were aware of it.

“As I was observing our resource persons (including Galvez and Duque), I didn’t notice any glow in their eyes or at least an expression of pleasant surprise in their faces, which should have been the case for a normal person after hearing such a wonderful piece of information. 44 million doses! My God, Philippines, my beloved Philippines – at P1,200 per dose as the estimated average cost made by the Department of Finance for purposes of transacting loan agreements with the World bank and the Asian Development Bank, this would translate into P52.8 billion worth of free vaccines!” he said in his privilege speech.

Lacson said that if we take into account 44 million doses for free from COVAX, the 8.5 million doses from the private sector, and 14 million to be shouldered by the local government units, this could mean the national government may seek a smaller loan from institutions like the Asian Development Bank and World Bank.

“We would not be needing P70 billion to purchase vaccines because of the free doses. Our computations show the national government should need to vaccinate 36 million Filipinos. At P1,200 per vaccine on the average, it would need just P39 to 40 billion instead of P70 billion,” he said.