MANILA, Philippines — The Duterte administration was told on Monday to clarify why it is allowing local governments to procure their own coronavirus vaccines, a move that a senator warned could lead to duplication and waste of resources as cities and provinces begin to secure doses for their constituents.
The initiatives by local government units might send the message to lower-income cities and municipalities that they would have to do the same, officials were told.
Members of the upper chamber convened Monday as a Committee of the Whole to probe the government’s vaccination program. The hearing was meant to address questions on the government's plan to procure doses and inoculate millions of Filipinos against COVID-19 in 2021 alone.
Vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr. was pressed on why LGUs are now moving to buy their own when some P72.5 billion had been allotted under this year’s spending plan for the vaccination program.
“The main concern here is confusion,” said Sen. Pia Cayetano. “It could be a major waste of resources. Here are the LGUs providing for their private health frontliners [tapos] ‘yun pala ginagawa niyo rin, ‘yun pala ‘yung hospitals ginagawa rin niya.”
So far, it has signed deals for 30 million doses of Covavax and 25 million doses of the Chinese-made Sinovac which has faced public scrutiny, while 2.6 million doses of AstraZeneca were secured last year through a private sector donation.
Galvez in response to Cayetano sought to say that the more than P70 billion could only fit to inoculate the 35 million in their priority list, but the said amount could “expand” through the help of other sectors.
Such had alarmed the lawmaker, who in turn asked if there was limited access to funding hence the need for help from the private sector. Galvez said there are no problems with funding.
Finance Undersecretary Mark Dennis Joven later on explained that the 50 million target could be met as the Covax facility would bring enough for 22 million of the country’s population on top of the 35 million prioritized.
“With 70 billion plus COVAX contribution of 20% of the Philippine population…we’ll be able to inoculate 50 million Filipinos in 2021 [then] it meets our target,” he said.
Cayetano said government should make that clear to LGUs as she said some had already raised concerns that there is growing confusion on the administration’s move.
Local governments were allowed to procure doses through a tripartite agreement between them, drugmakers and the administration, with several of them already signing and more announcing funding for the effort.
"There is confusion because it is not clear if this is what LGUs really need to do," Cayetano said partly in Filipino.
"The worry is for smaller local governments, those not as wealthy as in Metro Manila. They don’t know if they have to borrow money or suspend programs just to shell out funds."
According to Department of Finance Department Order 23-08, a first class city has annual income of at least P400 million. In contrast, a sixth-class municipality — the lowest tier — has an annual income of below P15 million.
Galvez at the same hearing said LGUs would be tasked to produce their own master list, including hospitals and centers that could be used when the rollout of the jabs begins.
Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian asked too if financial aid would be extended to poorer local governments, especially in logistics. Health Secretary Franciso Duque III said there would be in providing syringes, face masks and shields, to name a few.
"We will provide the poorer or lower classification LGUs with certain logistical support," he said. "The vaccine is free, so we will just provide the logistical support."
The COVID-19 candidate of British-Swedish AstraZeneca is awaiting approval for emergency use in the Philippines, after sending its application to local regulators last week.
It was the second to seek EUA after Pfizer in December, and Gamaleya on January 8.
Data from its full trials also showed that its jabs are 70% effective on average, and at P610 in two doses, is the second cheapest and only needs normal fridge temperatures at around two to eight degrees Celsius for storage. — Christian Deiparine with reports from Gaea Katreena Cabico