According to February 24 Bloomberg data, some 213 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have already been administered in 95 countries. And with an average inoculation rate of 6.1 million a day, it was estimated that it will take 5.1 years before global herd immunity — where at least 75 percent of the world’s population is vaccinated — will be achieved.
Attaining this herd immunity to finally end the pandemic entails surmounting the greatest logistical challenge humanity has ever faced in modern history. It also involves navigating some of the deepest inequalities between and within nations.
At a recent virtual meeting of the United Nations (UN) Security Council, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres decried that current COVID-19 vaccination trends to be “wildly uneven and unfair.” He pointed out that while only 10 countries account for as much as three-fourths of all the vaccines that have already been administered, more than a hundred other countries, like the Philippines, have yet to receive a single dose.
In late January this year, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) reported that of the 12.5 billion doses that the main vaccine producers have pledged for 2021, 6.4 billion were pre-ordered mostly by high-income countries. Having purchased such high volumes, richer countries like Canada and the United Kingdom could reportedly inoculate their entire populations many times over.
One article in the South China Morning Post put it succinctly: “If the big problem of 2020 was the coronavirus, the big one of 2021 is shaping up to be vaccine inequality.” Leaving this issue unaddressed will surely prolong the pandemic and the economic recovery. In fact, a study commissioned by the International Chamber of Commerce Research Foundation even estimated that vaccine inequality could cost the global economy up to US$9.2 trillion.
Of course, this is where the COVAX facility of the World Health Organization (WHO) comes in, as it aims to provide every country — especially the ones with limited resources — with doses to inoculate at least 20 percent of their populations.
By and large however, low-income countries will still need to fight tooth and nail to purchase the doses they need, or attract donations from other countries. Having fallen behind, they will still be hard-pressed to scrounge up the resources, hasten the procurement process, and ensure the unhampered delivery and distribution of vaccines.
The National COVID-19 Vaccination Program Act — which we recently sponsored, and which both Houses of Congress passed upon certification by the President — aims to provide some solutions to this problem.
For one, it provides legal cover for our Local Government Units (LGUs) and private entities to procure and even make advance payments for vaccines and ancillary supplies and services, subject to certain conditions.
By enabling LGUs and private entities this way, we free up even more resources to purchase vaccines. While there is roughly ₱82.5 billion that has been appropriated in 2021 for our national COVID-19 immunization program, we are adding more to this fund by allowing LGUs and companies to use whatever resources they have to purchase vaccines and the related supplies.
In fact, based on a survey and study conducted by the League of Provinces of the Philippines (LPP), 70 LGUs are prepared to spend a little more than ₱13 billion to purchase and administer vaccines — ₱4.392 billion from 32 provinces and ₱8.72 billion from 38 cities and municipalities. Then as of December last year, hundreds of Filipino companies pooled their resources and were able to secure pledges of up to 17 million doses. With revenues down, we will need as much cash as we can to procure and administer vaccines expeditiously.
The measure also responds to the issue of indemnification that some vaccine manufacturers have required for their supply agreements. Under the measure, a COVID-19 national indemnity fund — worth ₱500 million to be administered by PhilHealth — will be established for the compensation of any inoculated person who subsequently experiences severe adverse effects or even death. We believe that by putting such terms in black and white, we remove a significant barrier to the signing of a vaccine supply agreement.
We’ve also exempted purchases, importations, and donations of COVID-19 vaccines from customs duties, VAT, excise tax, donor’s tax, and other fees and charges. In doing so, we hope to encourage more parties to donate vaccines for the benefit of the public.
With the assistance of our Senate colleagues, counterparts in the House, and friends in the academe and the private sector, we were able to pass such an important measure in a short amount of time. We are also thankful that President Duterte has swiftly signed it into law.
Sen. Sonny Angara has been in public service for 16 years. He has authored and sponsored more than 200 laws. He is currently serving his second term in the Senate.
E-mail: [email protected]| Facebook, Twitter & Instagram: @sonnyangara