Nothing surprised us more than the admission of Secretary Carlito Galvez, Jr., the chief implementor of COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) task force, before the Philippine Senate on Feb. 11 that the Philippine Government has yet to seal an agreement with any pharmaceutical company on the supply of vaccines.
What happened to the previous announcement as reported by this broadsheet on Feb. 9 that “the government is in talks for more than 100 million doses with drug makers worth $1.2 billion and about $40 million doses under the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) facility of the World Health Organization (WHO) worth $84 million?”
Galvez blamed tight global supply.
No less than Health Secretary Francisco Duque III confirmed Galvez’ admission.
Only non-binding term sheets with five drug makers involving some 108 million doses were all we had when the health authorities announced that the arrival of the vaccines is only a few weeks away. We thought after the ball was dropped last year with Pfizer, we had learned our lesson. We could have taken delivery of the initial doses early last month. We could have saved lives, as expressed by Senator Panfilo Lacson during the Senate hearing.
What are we receiving in the next few days?
Secretary Duque advised the senators that we would be getting 600,000 doses of the Sinovac vaccines donated by China by Feb. 23. Another 117,000 doses would come from Pfizer courtesy of the COVAX vaccine alliance after the initial schedule of Feb. 15 because of some delay in the paperwork. For the record, Galvez qualified that the donation has not been issued emergency use authority (EUA) by the Food and Drug Administration.
This information confirms our suspicion that we are partly depending on another nation’s donation and supplies from COVAX. So far, COVAX has signed an advance purchase agreement for up to 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine. An additional 150 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine might be coming within the first quarter 2021 through the Serum Institute of India and AstraZeneca itself.
But the COVAX arrangement could be problematic. Thailand decided to stay away from it because it “would risk the country paying more for the shots and facing uncertainty about delivery times.” Thailand’s pandemic mitigation no doubt fared so much better than the Philippines in terms of cases (as of Feb. 16: 24,786 versus 552,246) and deaths (82 versus 11,524). Its health authorities would not risk the Thai public’s health by depending on donations and bulk purchases by other parties.
We are surprised therefore that Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque had to announce “our government is prepared to start the vaccination drive on Feb. 15.” Like the first time, it was the delay in acting on the confidential disclosure agreement (CDA) that cost us the Pfizer vaccine.
Now, we are scrambling for whatever vaccines are available.
The Office of the President, the health department and the task force could have done the nation a great service if they had spent more time in securing the agreements than in issuing press statements. It’s correct to convince people to get the jabs but it is more correct to ensure they are available, effective and safe.
In fact, Secretary Galvez, as early as last week, had already hedged on the date of the rollout of the vaccines to the middle of next year should a supply shortage occur. The schedule looks disturbing when only 70 million out of 108 million population need to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity.
The senators therefore have all the reasons to be impatient with the way things are moving. We see mixed signals and conflicting announcements from the authorities when they need to row in one direction. What we dread is when the general public’s distrust of and eroded confidence in public policy continues to spill over to the real economy and entrenches limited mobility and weak business activities. Our column last week on stagflation might come to pass because we abetted it with open arms and closed eyes.
But prompt sourcing of the vaccine is just one source of uncertainty. The other source is the UK, South African, and Brazilian strains that seem to have started engulfing territories around the world, putting into question the efficacy of current versions of the vaccines. In particular, the UK strain was detected in the National Capital Region through genome sequencing done by the Philippine Genome Center. Some 44 cases have been reported so far.
This easily-transmissible mutant should convince the Palace to issue an executive order, or Congress to amend the Procurement Law, to allow local government units (LGUs) to directly procure vaccines from the drug companies. Tripartite agreements are just bureaucratic and circuitous. The congressional initiative to grant tax relief to direct purchases by LGUs should be passed immediately. The only hurdle is to ensure that the requisition “shall only be used for their residents and constituents and not for commercial distribution.”
Still another source of uncertainty is what Philippine Star columnist Boo Chanco wrote this week about the next epidemic. Recognizing the Philippines’ 79th ranking in COVID-19 response among 98 countries with a score of only 30.6% out of 100%, Boo cited a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) report on “three potentially lethal pandemics.” The next three big threats are the MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) in camels in Africa; the Nipah virus in bats in Asia; and a pig influenza pandemic.
What is scary is the possible cross infection between animals and humans. “The bad news is that influenza viruses can jump between species and mix and mingle with other influenza strands. It’s these new concoctions that scientists worry about: they have the ability to cause the significant health issues, death, and worldwide disruption that we’re seeing with COVID-19.”
While we struggle with vaccine logistics and anticipate future COVID-19 strains and a new epidemic, the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) is recommending the downgrading of general community quarantine (GCQ) to modified GCQ (MGCQ) to cover the entire Philippines. NEDA cited the need to address hunger and income losses due to the prolonged pandemic-induced lockdown. NEDA clarified that the economy could be reopened with due consideration of the COVID-19 reality. “We have to do both,” Acting Secretary Karl Chua explained.
We fully understand where Secretary Chua is coming from and we support his cause. He could have made a stronger case if the recommendation was made consistent with the established metrics on when we migrate from one quarantine to another. Doing both health mitigation and business reopening would be difficult given this confusing status of our vaccine procurement and the threat of new strains and new epidemics.
Very few would challenge this proposal without the pandemic scars. Lest it be forgotten, many business firms have closed down and many more are planning to follow because business is bad. Business is bad because people continue to be restricted from moving around due to the threat of getting the virus and contracting COVID-19. There are surveys to prove self-quarantine remains prevalent especially among the senior citizens who have the means to spend.
The key is for the entire Philippine Government to consult within itself before embarking on a specific strategy. Such a strategy should cover the usual health protocols, public communication, and roll out of the vaccines to increase the chance of beating the virus based on established guidelines. With good progress, we can have a more aggressive easing of health restrictions.
No wonder, UP’s Octa Research Group rejected NEDA’s proposal. Octa advised the government instead to check the reality on the ground and observe the guidelines instead of being driven by a deadline. Octa reminded the public that while the situation has become more manageable recently, “the country is not yet where we are supposed to be to move to MGCQ.” Nine cities in NCR (National Capital Region) experienced upticks in COVID cases while Cebu, Caraga and Kalinga also showed the same surge. More bio-surveillance is needed due to the threat of the UK variant to avoid arbitrary and premature reopening. That could only cause another outbreak. Some NCR mayors and the Philippine Pediatrics Society also opposed NEDA’s proposal.
This precaution is not without basis. In Indonesia, they have begun to implement what they called micro lockdown, very similar to what we have today, due to the viral upsurge. New Zealand’s biggest city, Auckland, also implemented a time-bound lockdown to force two million residents to stay at home and contain the highly contagious UK variant.
Are we seeing social loafing in the bureaucracy? It’s difficult to be categorical because the health pandemic is a health issue and we can count in our fingers who are accountable to any slippage and blunder. The issue is also economic and again, individual accountabilities are not hard to establish. But when there is diffusion of authority and wholesale exoneration of missteps proves easy to secure, public officials could still step back behind the appointing authority and loafing happens. When there is loafing in government, we don’t get good results because individual performances do not seem to be binding on their accountabilities.
Diwa C. Guinigundo is the former Deputy Governor for the Monetary and Economics Sector, the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP). He served the BSP for 41 years. In 2001-2003, he was Alternate Executive Director at the International Monetary Fund in Washington, DC. He is the senior pastor of the Fullness of Christ International Ministries in Mandaluyong.