Privilege Speech on the National Vaccination Program
January 19, 2021
January 19, 2021 - Mr. President, distinguished colleagues, I rise before you on a matter of collective and personal privilege.
Looking back to last week’s Committee of the Whole 2-day hearings, I couldn’t help but think that we’ve been had. Instead of having the information needed to aid us in our legislative work mainly because some people in the panel of our resource persons who are in charge of the vaccine program were not forthright and honest in their responses to the questions raised by the members of this august chamber.
Nevertheless, we find comfort from the wise words of Winston Churchill, who said and I quote: “Truth is incontrovertible, malice may attack it and ignorance may deride it, but, in the end, there it is.”
At the center of the firestorm that had almost consumed the two-day long hearings and had consumed us the most was the Sinovac vaccine for a number of reasons.
First, it was the best- and the worst-defended among at least seven brands of vaccines that the Philippine government has put on the table for consideration. Vaccine Czar Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr, and Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, particularly, were in chorus in claiming that we already secured Sinovac supply of 25 million doses. They claimed that we “sealed the deal” and have a “locked-in agreement” with Sinovac, and an initial 50,000 doses are already available for our vaccine delivery by February 20 onwards.
Then, in a seemingly coordinated communication strategy, Presidential Spokesman Sec. Harry Roque was announcing in a press conference that Sinovac vaccines was the ONLY vaccine available from February to June, and Filipinos cannot be “choosy” as in – take Sinovac or wait until after June this year to be inoculated.
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.
The Mysterious Price of Sinovac Vaccines
Mr. President, I could not understand for the life of me why we are being kept in the dark when it comes to our price negotiations with Sinovac, while our neighboring countries could not be more transparent about it.
Sure, our chief implementers have been invoking the Confidentiality Disclosure Agreement. But what gives?
In a statement released on October 14, 2020, by Indonesia’s state-owned pharmaceutical company named PT Biopharma, it was confirmed by no less than the company’s President/Director, Honesti Basyir, that they have sealed the deal with Sinovac Biotech at around 200,000 Indonesian Rupiah (US$13.57) or P683.30 per Sinovac dosage once it becomes available.
Even the Thailand government has been transparent in its negotiations with vaccine developers. Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha announced last week that their government is acquiring two million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine from Sinovac. Based on the infographics posted by the Bangkok Post, which had gone viral hours after it was released, we see that Thailand was able to procure the Sinovac at $5 or P240 (P48:US$1) per dose.
Sec. Galvez, in his interview just this morning with ANC, quoted a Thai mayor who stated that they are “ready to spend 100 million baht to buy vaccines for 70,000 residents, if they receive permission to do so.” He said that from these figures, Thailand’s acquisition of of the vaccine per dose would be $23.47.
We pulled out the article to fact-check the validity of Sec. Galvez’s figures. Unfortunately, somebody must advise him to re-read and review the article carefully, to see that the mayor of Nakhon Yala was not referring to any particular brand of vaccine, much less Sinovac.
Going back to my previous point Mr. President, Indonesia and Thailand were able to acquire the Sinovac at P683.30 and P240 per dose, respectively. Will somebody explain the P1,814.75 per dose price of Sinovac vaccine, or P3,629 provided by the Department of Health to the Senate Committee on Finance during our budget deliberations late last year?
Easily, I am reminded of an old story of how corruption is committed in three Southeast Asian countries – UNDER the table; ON the table; INCLUDING the table.
Secretary Galvez, in an attempt to appease the public, stated in a television interview that the cost of the Sinovac, when purchased through the COVAX facility, will decrease by as much as 300%. I still have not heard how the 300% reduction is a mathematical probability, Mr. President, in the vaccine procurement without China or Sinovac Biotech Ltd. for that matter, giving us a rebate equivalent to 200%. It’s been days of prodding but still, no clarification whatsoever has been made. It has been days since I had my good night’s sleep.
At any rate, it appears that our initial locked-in agreement with Sinovac comprising 25 million doses will not be covered by the ludicrous 300% mark-down. As discussed during the hearings, the COVAX facility only has an agreement for early roll-out in February with Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine of a limited quantity. COVAX has also secured agreements for AstraZeneca and Moderna, and signed agreements for Johnson & Johnson and Sanofi-GSK. There was no mention of Sinovac. When I asked Sec. Galvez a direct question on whether or not Sinovac is part of the COVAX program, his answer was – “nag-a-apply pa lang.”
Then during our second hearing last Friday, WHO representative to the Philippines Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe disclosed that under the WHO program, low- and medium-income countries are actually recipients of free vaccines through the COVAX facility, and in fact, the Philippines has an allocation of 44 million doses of anti-COVID19 vaccines. As I was observing our resource persons from where I sat right in this hall, 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! Isn’t that wonderful, Mr. President?
Yesterday, in another interview, Spokesperson Harry Roque dismissed the initially-released P3,600 price for two dosages of Sinovac as “fake news.” His exact words were: “Ang aking i-a-assure po sa inyo, fake news po ‘yung kumakalat na P3,600 daw ang singil ng China. Ang ating presyo, bagama’t hindi pa maaaring ianunsyo kung ano po talaga ang presyo ng Sinovac, ay hindi po nagkakalayo o hindi po lalayo sa presyo ng Indonesia na sa bandang P650 kada turok.”
Early this morning, in his interview, Sec. Galvez clarified that the P3,629 price circulating on social media is that of Sinopharm and not Sinovac. However, we must take note that Senator Angara stated for the record last Friday that the vaccine prices released by his office late last year, which included the Sinovac price, and now going viral on social media, were furnished by the Department of Health to the Senate Committee on Finance during the 2021 budget deliberations.
We dare ask: Are Secretary Roque and Secretary Galvez saying that Secretary Duque was the peddler of that fake news?
Imagine this, Mr. President. Marahil kung sakaling hindi natalakay sa pagdinig ng Senado ang kontrobersya ng Sinovac, at assuming natuloy ang original na presyong P3,629 or $38 kada dalawang bakuna o P1,814 equivalent to $19 kada turok, kontra $5 sa Thailand, easily the price difference of 25 million doses would fetch US$350 million or P16.8 billion.
That being said, I am not prepared to accuse anyone in particular of corruption. Rather, it defies logic to suspect at least an attempt to overprice the vaccine. Again, when there is an attempt at overpricing, isn’t it also logical to think na may kikita ng limpak-limpak na salapi?
When the Pfizer issue came about, we asked: “Who dropped the ball?” We haven’t even gotten a clear answer, Mr. President. And now, on the Sinovac vaccine, we ask, “Who dropped the price?”
Mr. President, in any case, if indeed it is true that the government was able to bring down the cost from P3,600 for two doses of Sinovac Biotech vaccine named CoronaVac or P1,800 per dose to P650 per dose, or at least 60% than the previous DOH figures, well and good. We can say that the Senate, through the Committee of the Whole hearings triggered by Sen. Kiko Pangilinan’s Senate resolution has done its fair share in protecting the public coffers and saving our people billions of pesos in the national vaccination program. Not to mention that this is also attributed to the collective effort of our netizens to demand transparency from our chief implementers on our government’s negotiations with the controversial Sinovac Biotech Ltd.
No Approval from Stringent Regulatory Agencies
Mr. President, true to their tactic, “If you cannot convince them, confuse them,” our vaccine program officials brought more confusion and bewilderment in their rush to procure Sinovac. Unluckily for them, we do not get confused easily.
Notwithstanding the lack of Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) of Sinovac in the Philippines, Secretary Galvez was 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, ma a-approve po before February 20. Maganda ang arrangement natin kasi may darating kada buwan.”
We know for a fact that stringent conditions have to be complied with before the FDA issues an EUA for a COVID-19 vaccine. This is a condition sine qua non to the use of any vaccine in the Philippines.
Needless to say, the assurance made by Secretary Galvez that Sinovac will be approved before its supposed roll-out somehow sends an impression of undue preference for the Sinovac over other available vaccines. It also poses the question: are we not preempting the independent evaluation of the FDA with such pronouncement from the Chief of the National Vaccine Program?
On top of this, FDA also claimed that they have not yet started their assessment of the Sinovac application since the results of its Phase III clinical trials have yet to be released. With no FDA approval from any stringent regulatory authorities and no results of Phase III trials for EUA approval in this country, why do our officials keep on blowing their horns about Sinovac?
When pressed further, Secretary Galvez averred that they have no obligation to buy from Sinovac until they meet certain conditions.
Even our path of procurement raises eyebrows, Mr. President. In a pronouncement made by the President, he said that government-to-government transactions will be better than dealing with private pharmaceutical companies because it will lessen the possibility of entering into anomalous deals. In an interview of Secretary Galvez, he was also quoted saying, “Ang Sinovac ay G to G lang ang arrangement.”
Mr. President, will somebody explain why our vaccine czar claims that in procuring Sinovac, we only follow government-to-government transaction, yet in his testimony last Friday, upon questioning by the minority leader, Franklin Drilon, he contradicted himself once more in saying that they are dealing with a certain “Helen Yang,” who is an executive of a private firm, Sinovac Biotech Ltd. based in Hong Kong?
A quick Google search on Ms. Helen G. Yang shows that she used to be the Manager for International Business Development at Sinovac Biotech Ltd., and is presently the Investor Relations Contact of this Beijing-based biopharmaceutical company.
Sinovac Efficacy based on Clinical Trials
Mr. President, distinguished colleagues, scientists and experts have been trumpeting the importance of Phase III clinical trials in evaluating the human health outcomes of any new test or treatment. When it comes to developing a new vaccine, this is the stage where tests are conducted on larger populations, and in different countries and regions to evaluate its safety and efficacy.
Over the past weeks, our people, in various platforms, have been demanding answers on why we are selecting a vaccine with a higher price but with relatively lower efficacy rates or with lower number of individuals tested in trials when compared to other available vaccines.
Last hearing, Mr. President, I raised the question on the calculation of the efficacy rate of Sinovac in the clinical trials conducted by Sao Paulo’s Butatan biomedical center in Brazil. Using the formula on efficacy rate of vaccine by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is measured by calculating the risk of disease among vaccinated and unvaccinated persons or placebo group, and determining the percentage reduction in risk of disease among vaccinated persons relative to unvaccinated persons. Simply put, efficacy rate is equal to one (1) minus the relative risk or risk ratio (RR). It appears using the CDC formula that the efficacy rate of 50.4% actually represent the risk ratio, and the more accurate and complete calculation of efficacy rate is 49.58%, well below the acceptable threshold set by WHO.
FDA Director General Eric Domingo and Philippine Medical Association Representative Dr. Lulu Bravo both agreed that this is the standard formula of calculating the efficacy rate. Anyway, I better leave the matter to our experts for scrutiny and analysis while we await the results of Phase 3 of the trials.
Early on in his administration, President Duterte claimed that he would not follow the government’s “lowest bid” rule in awarding contracts for government as this usually results in substandard equipment, projects, and services, and leads to corruption. I agree with him fully in this regard, Mr. President. But with a caveat: that quality must be an indispensable consideration. Relative to the procurement of vaccines, it must be pointed out that in terms of cost and quality, Sinovac ranks as the second most expensive vaccine with its efficacy rate falling among the lowest tiers compared to others. Thus, the issue with Sinovac is not just a matter of price, but more importantly, that of efficacy.
We face a serious dilemma not only in sourcing vaccines, but most importantly, in winning public trust and confidence. With a recent poll showing that only 25% of Filipinos are willing to be vaccinated, while 28% won’t get the vaccine and 47% are undecided, there is much to do in advancing our agenda. We should start with transparency, openness, and competence for the best interest of our people. They have the right to be informed of their options – to choose, or to refuse. They deserve no less.
Mr. President, surviving the coronavirus is an immense challenge as it is. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is unfortunate that so much of our people’s energy have been wasted on unneeded and demoralizing matters, such as the issues on incompetence, greed, and corruption, among others. With all due respect to our distinguished colleague, the honorable Grace Poe and her mom, Ms. Susan Roces – let me propose to amend a famous statement she made a few years ago, thus: “Ang ‘incompetent’ ay bunsong kapatid ng sinungaling at magnanakaw.”
Mr. President, allow me to share a portion from this representation and Sen. Ronald de la Rosa’s back-and-forth gentleman-to-gentleman, or Cavalier-to-Cavalier chat, if I may, with Sec. Galvez yesterday. The long and short of it is that it was suggested that we proceed to the holding of an executive session as proposed by the majority leader, Migz Zubiri, in order for us to be able to get the responses to our unanswered questions during the two public hearings. In sum, Sec. Galvez agreed to reveal the prices of the vaccines, among others, under certain conditions, which of course I will leave to the Senate President and this august body to decide.
Lastly, let me end this privilege speech with a portion of an article written by one of World Bank’s known executives, Mr. Ferid Belhaj. He said and I quote: “Tragedies — whether natural or man-made — have a tendency to bring people together.” Lest we forget that: “human solidarity will be our most powerful defense against human suffering.”
Thank you, Mr. President.