Walang Pulitika sa Pagdinig na Ito: Second Senate Hearing on COVID Vaccination

At the second hearing of the Senate Committee of the Whole on the government’s vaccination efforts, Sen. Lacson debunked insinuations of politics in the hearings.

Sen. Lacson’s Manifestation at the Hearing

At the outset, let me set the record straight. I will also go straight to the point. During last night’s Zoom meeting to discuss vaccine updates on Test, Trace, Treat (T3), the country’s vaccine czar, Sec. Carlito Galvez Jr., virtually accused the Senate or at least some senators who asked questions during last Monday’s hearing, of quoting his own words, “demonizing” vaccine developers or “hurting” the ongoing negotiations of our government with vaccine manufacturers and suppliers, apparently referring to Sinovac.

He specifically mentioned my name as allegedly politicizing the issue at hand mainly because of Sec. Duque, which I deny of course; as well as the names of Sens. Migz Zubiri and Kiko Pangilinan, in relation to the Sinovac vaccine, as if blaming the Senate for the brewing vaccine procurement controversies.

For the record, we senators do not spend long hours seeking clarification from our resource persons like Sec. Galvez because it is incumbent upon us to exercise our mandate to demand transparency and accountability from our chief implementers on how they plan to use public funds. In this case, to recover from a health crisis that continues to threaten every aspect of human life. After all, I am certain that everyone in this hall and those attending online will agree that our recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is not a single man’s business. It is a matter of record that Congress wasted no time in passing legislative measures and appropriations to quickly respond and address the current health crisis. In fact, Mr. President, for the national government’s vaccination program alone, which currently stands at P87.5B speaks volumes of the legislature’s resolve and commitment to our nation’s common cause.

Mr. Chairman, let me assure Sec. Galvez: Walang pulitika sa pagdinig na ito. Katulad din ng sinagawa nating pagdinig kamakailan lamang sa pang-abusong ginawa sa pondo ng PhilHealth na sa kasalukuyan as we speak, ay may mga kasong criminal na hinaharap ang ilang indibidwal. We call it oversight, or check-and-balance, if you will, being exercised by a coequal branch of government.

It is indeed unfortunate that the Senate is being dragged as scapegoat by projecting the narrative that this inquiry is being used as an avenue for political agenda.

Tagatanong lang tayo, Mr. President. Ang mga resource persons ang nagbibigay ng mga datos na minsan ay magkakasalungat at magulo.

During the last hearing, we raise the question of why we could not procure vaccines at a much lower cost, as in the case of AstraZeneca, which has been forthright in announcing that it will accord low-income countries such as ours at a no-profit basis, its vaccines costing only $2.50 per dose instead its commercial of $5. Secretary Galvez was quick to disagree, saying that there are two sets of prices: the commercial price and the COVAX price. In his words, “The COVAX price is very, very low. What we are negotiating is NOT the COVAX price.” Hence, do we take it from him that we are doomed to pay for the higher price of vaccines?

However, just two days later, when the steep prices of vaccines stirred public outcry, he cautioned the people not to believe those who say it, as these are market prices. In what appears to be a brazen contradiction of himself, he now claims that the government is negotiating with vaccine makers at the more affordable COVAX prices. Simple lang ang tanong, Mr. President. Nakamura po ba tayo o napapamahal pa?

Our confusion brews from the procurement of Beijing-based Sinovac Biotech vaccine which price ranges from a low of US$13.60 to a high of US$29.75, or from P680 to P1,487.50 per dosage as reported by several reliable sources. The office of Senator Angara, for example, with data provided by the Department of Health, pegs the cost of Sinovac at P3,629.50 for two doses. Undeniably, data shows that Sinovac ranks as the second most expensive vaccine in the market.

As if to pacify the public, Secretary Galvez stated in a television interview that the cost of the vaccine, when purchased through the COVAX facility will decrease by as much as 300%. If I still remember what my mathematics professor taught us many years ago, with a 300% decrease in price, we can demand a rebate equivalent to 200%. Kung ganyan pala ang diskwento Mr. President, bumili agad tayo ng P5T worth of vaccines at singilin natin ng P10T rebate para mabayaran natin ang pambansang utang natin na umabot na sa P10.13T as of November last year.

Be that as it may Mr. President, it appears our initial locked-in agreement with Sinovac comprising 25 million doses will not be covered by the ludicrous 300% markdown as the COVAX facility only has this agreement for early rollout in February with Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine of a limited quantity. COVAX also has secured agreements for AstraZeneca and Moderna, and also signed agreements for Johnson & Johnson and Sanofi-GSK. There was no mention of Sinovac.

To our dreadful surprise, it may be too late now to backpedal from our Sinovac deal since 50,000 doses are already set to be delivered on February 20. Notwithstanding the lack of Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) of Sinovac in the Philippines, and even in China, its country of origin, Secretary Galvez is positive that we will have a roll-out of the vaccine next month and onwards. In his words, as if speaking on behalf of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “Iyong EUA po ng Sinovac, baka ma-approve po before February 20. Maganda ang arrangement natin kasi may darating kada buwan.”

Ang pahayag ng FDA ay mas malinaw at makatotohanan. Director General Eric Domingo said in a recent interview, FDA will be more meticulous in evaluating Sinovac’s vaccine as the Chinese company has not secured EUA from stringent regulatory agencies.

Over the past few weeks, we all learned that talk is cheap and nothing more than verifiable data can speak of the truth. When public officials hide under the cloud of secrecy, confidentiality and motherhood statements, we cast a shadow of doubt over matters of national interest and lose sight of our health agenda amid this global pandemic.

Lest we forget Mr. President, in the course of this public inquiry, what hangs in the balance is the life and welfare of every Filipino, no more no less.

Thank you, Mr. President.


Why Sinovac?

During the hearing, Sen. Lacson questioned the pronouncement of presidential spokesperson Harry Roque Jr. that only Sinovac will be available from February to June. “And that’s quite definite. Sinabi pa niya don’t be choosy, ang available lang Sinovac from February to June, so that’s 5 months’ headway. How do we reconcile that?”

Sen. Lacson noted that using the vaccine efficacy rate calculation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Sinovac’s efficacy rate stands at 49.58% – below the 50% threshold imposed by WHO. “It’s less than 50%.”

Earlier, he noted the CDC calculation showed the 50.41% claimed efficacy rate of Sinovac merely appears to be the risk ratio, and the efficacy rate is actually 49.58%.


Why Limit LGUs’ Spending Capacity for Vaccines?

Sen. Lacson questioned the limiting of LGUs’ spending capacity for vaccines via a 50% cap, adding LGUs should be encouraged to play ‘big brother’ to poorer counterparts. “Why do we have to put a cap na 50% sa amount na pwede i-spend?

“The point I want to pursue is, hindi ba dapat mag-encourage pa tayo? Mag-big brother role sila sa poor municipalities, they want to adopt and spend their money for the poorer LGUs. Di ba dapat ganoon, instead of limiting their capacity to 50% or their ability to purchase vaccines?

DILG Undersecretary Epimaco Densing III explained this was to allow LGUs to reallocate resources for other anti-COVID activities rather than limiting themselves to the vaccine, adding the 50% cap is on the assumption that the national government will procure vaccines on behalf of the local governments.