POSTSCRIPT / November 26, 2020 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Duterte’s remedial test on vaccination

AFTER its dismal performance in restricting the entry and spread of the COVID-19 plague in the country, the Duterte administration will have a chance to redeem itself when it faces next year a remedial test in managing the vaccination of some 60 million Filipinos.

At two doses per person (a second or booster shot is needed), the inoculation program will require 120-million doses of the vaccine. Priced at an average of P1,200 per dose, the entire stock needed will cost around P144 billion.

The next question is where to get that pile of money. The funds, according to Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez, will be raised, mostly borrowed, from various sources.

But the P144 billion is only for buying the vaccine, with a deposit paid early enough to nail down a delivery date. The problem that follows the sale is mostly logistical — taking delivery, storing the delicate drug, and injecting it promptly on 60 million Filipinos throughout the archipelago.

It has been estimated that storing and distributing the vaccine is as expensive as buying it. The amount would even be bigger if the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine were to be chosen, because it requires storage at minus-70 degrees Celsius, which local logistics firms may find hard to handle.

Who said 60 million persons must be vaccinated? Many epidemiologists opine that at least 60 percent of a threatened population (in our case 100 million) must be inoculated to develop their resistance, absorb the virus safely and stop its spreading. They call that herd immunity.

Depending on the running statistics as monitored, authorities may lower or raise that 60-percent threshold, in which case the cost estimates would change, again assuming that more vaccines are available if needed and the government can afford to buy them on time.

While the COVID-19 mass vaccination is ongoing, public health or quarantine protocols will be observed. We do not throw caution to the wind just because the long-awaited vaccine has arrived.

Back to the question of funding, the proposed national budget for 2021 is P4.5 trillion. The 13 digits may look staggering but most of those pesos will go to running the bloated bureaucracy and be eaten up by inefficiency and corruption. We still have to look elsewhere for more billions.

Secretary Dominguez, who carries that burden of looking for funds, said the government is setting aside P73.2 billion to buy vaccines for 60 million Filipinos. He is talking of just the purchase and not yet of the equally expensive logistical nightmare that follows.

He said the government would borrow P40 billion from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank; P20 billion from domestic sources such as the Land Bank of the Philippines, Development Bank of the Philippines, and government-controlled corporations; and another P13.2 billion from “bilateral” sources or direct lenders.

“The total is about P73.2 billion of financing,” Dominguez said Monday in the COVID-19 task force meeting in Davao City with President Duterte. “Most of it is already fixed, although P13.2 billion is not yet completely negotiated.”

He said the average cost of the vaccine is $25 or about P1,200 per person. Other prices reported in various publications are of the British-Swedish firm AztraZeneca, said to be the cheapest, at P610 per person; $5 per dose; and $20 (including a booster shot 28 days later).

The vaccine of Sinopharm of China has been quoted at P17,690 per person for two doses, said to be the most expensive.

The prices vary depending on different factors. Like most things in demand, such details as volume, handling expenses and the seemingly inevitable commissions affect the pricing.

At a Senate hearing this week, Sen. Ralph Recto said that “the designated buyer for the vaccine has institutional handicaps which do not inspire us,” referring to the Philippine International Trading Corp. which has been criticized for delays in delivering goods that some government agencies had tasked it to buy.

Under the procurement plan approved by the economic managers, the government will borrow from the Development Bank of the Philippines and the Land Bank of the Philippines, then give the funds to PITC which will do the buying. The PITC will turn over the vaccines purchased to the COVID-19 task force and the health department.

Recto said: “Nang tinanong ko kahapon sa floor kung pwede ba zero commission sila, kung pwede nilang i-waive ang 1-4 percent na service fee, ayaw. Iginiit ang one percent nila.”

“So if 50 billion ang ibibigay sa kanilang pambili, ang kita nila sa ‘pasabuy’ na ito ay P500 million,” he said. “The rationale for that fee is it is for efficiency and as reward for possibly haggling down the price. But if delivery is delayed what’s the fee for?”

Gen. Carlito Galvez Jr., the “vaccine czar” as COVID-19 national policy chief implementer, said the government is negotiating with four pharma firms — Sinovac, Pfizer/BioNTech, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca.

He said the government has a commitment for 20 million doses at about $5 per dose from AstraZeneca that might be finalized this month. The general added that the earliest the vaccine could be delivered is in the second quarter of next year.

If the deal pushes through, delivery could be around Holy Week. As we predicted here last Sunday, the Christmas gift of a vaccine promised by Duterte will be delayed and delivered next year na as a kind of Lenten offering.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of November 26, 2020)

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Dear Sir Pascual, As vaccines are target-specific, how do we know which strain the vaccine to be purchased is designed for? And, how do we know if there is only one strain among the population? And, how can we be sure that the strain will remain unmutated or stable until the application of the vaccine? For argument's sake, let's assume I am for vaccination — which I am vehemently against — it is very convenient to prioritize the poor as among the first recipients. It is a sure-fire way to make sure the rich folks will have it tested before they will take the jab, just in case the vaccine proves to be unsafe. Let the first recipients test its efficacy for us before we receive it. Way to go...let the poor be our guinea pigs.


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