AS public anxiety grows over the renewed spike in COVID-19 cases, increasing the inflow of vaccine supply and accelerating the pace of vaccination have become even more imperative.
“We have to keep pace with our neighbors, which except for Indonesia, have (a) lower infection rate than us and yet are ahead of us (including Indonesia) in implementing the vaccination program. We cannot risk being left behind again and revert to being the ‘basket case’ of Asia,” said Benedicto Yujuico, president of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI).
Business leaders are echoing earlier calls made by senators and representatives to allow the private sector to import vaccines directly. Senator Miguel Zubiri points out that section 12 of Republic Act 114994 or the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act provides: “(N)othing in this Act shall prohibit private entities from conducting research, developing, manufacturing, importing, distributing, or selling COVID-19 vaccine sourced from registered pharmaceutical companies, subject to the provisions of this Act and existing laws, rules, and regulations.”
But Secretary Carlito Galvez, the vaccine czar, points out that this is not feasible. He says vaccine manufacturers would not engage directly with private companies unless they do so while partnering with the government. This is because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued only an emergency use authorization (EUA).
Spurred by initiatives led by Presidential Adviser for Entrepreneurship Jose Concepcion III, the private sector has entered into a tripartite agreement with the national government and local government units (LGUs) in a bid to fast-track vaccine importation and hasten its rollout.
Meantime, the Healthcare Professionals Alliance Against COVID-19 (HPAAC) has cautioned against prioritizing access to vaccines based on ability to pay by more financially capable LGUs. They emphasize that scarce supplies should be given first to those who need it most: Health care front liners, the elderly, and people with comorbidities or underlying health impairment.
Above the din of continuing debate, it is clear that a whole-of-government approach must be set in motion. The Executive branch must work hand in hand with the legislature so that legal and regulatory roadblocks could be hurdled and decisive action taken.
This would, in turn, pave the way for a whole-of-society concerted action.
According to the Philippine National Deployment and Vaccination Plan for COVID-19 Vaccines Interim Plan, a 125-page document issued by the Department of Health (DOH) last January, the national vaccination rollout target for 2021 is 70 million, or 63 percent of the country’s estimated total population of 110 million.
Galvez’s robust forecast that the government will be able to ramp up vaccination to one million doses per week implies that, at best, only about 43 million will be inoculated by year-end. This is a far cry from the attainment of the “herd immunity” target projected by the DOH.
The national economy nosedived last year; poverty and hunger have been exacerbated by the pandemic. A heightened sense of urgency must set into motion a whole-of-country approach to conquer COVID-19.