POSTSCRIPT / January 19, 2021 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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China vaccine: How costly as a solution?

THE REPORT yesterday that the Philippines is getting “all vaccines that China can spare” left an impression that the administration is bent on delivering Filipinos to the Chinese vaccine-makers, and there is not much that anybody can do about it.

With the COVID-19 pandemic having breached the psychological wall of 500,000 infections over the weekend, we felt resigned seeing the Duterte administration marshaling its forces to quell resistance to the deployment of Chinese vaccines.

Malacañang flung the door open as it welcomed Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Affairs Minister Wang Yi, who brought gifts that included 500,000 doses of their vaccines. That seemed to have drowned out talk of overpricing and corruption in the purchase of Sinovac Biotech vaccines.

On the diplomatic side, there has been no hint that the United States intends to match this move of China, which has been using its arsenal of vaccines to advance its economic and geopolitical agenda in the Third World.

Engrossed in its own costly COVID-19 battles and the stormy preparation for the Jan. 20 turnover to a Democratic administration, Washington is still mum on Duterte’s warning for it to give Manila at least 20 million doses of vaccines or see the Phl-US Visiting Forces Agreement terminated.

President Duterte has expressed an early preference for vaccines from China and Russia, a bias demonstrated by his administration’s placing an order for 25 million doses developed by Sinovac Biotech of China ahead of other vaccine candidates.

Sinovac has not completed the required Phase-3 clinical trials to evaluate its safety and efficacy. Neither has it been issued an emergency use authorization (EUA) by the Food and Drug Administration.

After meeting his Chinese counterpart on Saturday, Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr. reported on  witter: “We’re getting as many Chinese vaccines as China can spare, so there’s enough for everyone – very soon. Finally.”

Wang said: “As a friend of the Philippines and your closest neighbor, we will firmly stand with the people of the Philippines until the defeat of this virus.” In Beijing, the foreign ministry said China’s vaccines hold a “stronger” appeal for the majority of nations, especially developing countries.

Locsin also told Wang: “I know China isn’t pushing its vaccines as part of its diplomacy as its lying enemies insist. China needs as many of its vaccines for its own people, but we’d appreciate what it can spare, at concessional rates, as we go for other countries’ vaccines. So this.”

While China is exporting its vaccines, the Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group has announced that it would buy at least 100 million doses from BioNTech, a partner of US firm Pfizer, for use on the mainland next year if its plan is approved by regulators.

In the Senate and elsewhere, critics of Chinese vaccines hammer at their low efficacy ratings and higher prices. Chinese vaccines still in clinical trials cost more than most of their rivals from other countries, but the Philippine government has placed orders.

Sen. Ping Lacson noted that while Sinovac vaccines, which the government plans to use in the rollout of a mass inoculation next month, are being sold to other countries at $5 (about ₱240) per dose, they may cost as much as $38 (more than ₱1,800) for the Philippines.

He cited a Jan. 16 news report in Bangkok that Sinovac’s price there was only $5 per dose. But the Department of Health said during its budget hearing in the Senate last November that the price was ₱3,629.50 for two doses.

Asked on Wednesday in the Senate if it was true the Sinovac vaccine being bought by the government was priced at $38.50 (₱1,847.25) per dose, Vaccine Czar Carlito Galvez Jr. said it was less than that but that the price was covered by a confidentiality clause in the contract.

Local governments have been advised to buy 50 percent of their vaccine requirements with the national government supplying the rest. It was not clear who signs the tripartite agreement for the local and the national governments.

The non-disclosure provision looks odd. When one of the three parties is a government entity, or when the buyer is using public funds, how can there be a non-disclosure clause on price? Whoever was the public officer who signed the contract should be made to account.

In Jakarta, state-owned firm PT Bio Farma has confirmed that it was buying the vaccine at $13.57 per dose. Bio Farma president-director Honesti Basyir said the price was based on a recent email from Sinovac Biotech, the vaccine producer.

He denied reports that Brazil would get a similar vaccine for only $1.96 per dose. Shipping cost alone is at least $2 per dose, he said.

China has stepped up its “vaccine diplomacy”, with Foreign Minister Wang Yi saying that joint vaccine programs between Indonesia and China could be the focus of new ties between the two countries.

Wang said Indonesia could be a vaccine production hub for Southeast Asia: “China is willing to work with Indonesia on vaccine research, production and distribution, and support exchanges of relevant departments and medical institutes to help ensure access to affordable vaccines across the region and around the world.”

On Friday, presidential spokesman Harry Roque disclosed that the government was buying the Sinovac vaccine at “near ₱650” per dose or ₱1,300 for the complete two doses. How come he revealed the price that Galvez said was confidential?

Discussing the administration’s preference for Chinese vaccine, Lacson noted in a radio interview that Sinovac has “a track record for bribery” when pushing deals.

The senator recalled that Galvez had admitted in the Senate inquiry that he was dealing directly with an executive of Biotech Sinovac Ltd. based in Hong Kong, instead of making a government-to-government transaction.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of January 19, 2021)

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