Faster paperwork not enough
While President Duterte has ordered government agencies to allow the private sector to import freely, and on a tax-free basis, the COVID-19 vaccines businesses need to inoculate their workers, it’s too early to be elated by such announcement or expect a speedier rollout of the vaccination program. Clarificatory statements issued by government officials after Mr. Duterte’s directive indicated that the old system of procuring vaccines remains.
Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr., the point man in the country’s vaccine program, said that Mr. Duterte’s order to allow the private sector to import COVID-19 vaccines “at will” was only meant to fast-track the purchase of vaccines to avoid the impression that the government was controlling the procurement. In his words, he said the President directed him to sign “any and all documents that would allow the private sector to import at will.”
Under the current setup, no private entity can import on its own the vaccines even if it has access to foreign suppliers. A private corporation cannot just go to Galvez with a purchase order for the vaccines. The COVID-19 Vaccination Program Act of 2021 allows private companies to import vaccines only through a multiparty agreement with the Department of Health and the National Task Force Against COVID-19. Even with the President’s pronouncement ostensibly relaxing the rules, Palace spokesperson Harry Roque pointed out that the requirement for the signing of a tripartite agreement for private sector procurement remained, because the medicines are only under emergency use authorization and the government is still bound by law to pay indemnity in case of adverse effects by the vaccines. In short, despite the President’s directive on TV giving the impression of a change in the setup, the requirement of signing the importation agreement among the private company, the drug manufacturer, and the government through the DOH and the COVID-19 task force remains in force.
There appears to be one positive aspect following this latest botched messaging and policy confusion on the part of government that could encourage more private sector importation of the vaccines: the softening up of the administration’s requirement that any private company wishing to import vaccines must “donate” half of its order to the government. As pointed out by many observers, this provision had the effect of doubling a company’s cost of buying vaccines for its employees and their families, thus discouraging private sector participation in the earlier negotiations on vaccine procurement. After much public criticism of the burdensome condition, Galvez said, rather obliquely, that it was only drugmaker AstraZeneca that was requiring private companies ordering from it to donate half of their vaccine purchases to the government, ostensibly as part of its corporate social responsibility thrust to ensure equitable access to the drugs.
Among those said to have agreed to the “donation” provision during the negotiations in November last year and in January 2021 were the big names in corporate Philippines — Tessie Sy-Coson of SM, Fernando and Jaime Zobel of the Ayala group, port magnate Enrique Razon, Lance Gokongwei of JG Summit, and San Miguel head Ramon S. Ang. While Galvez insisted that the private firms had volunteered the donation, many business leaders noted that such provision in the tripartite agreement was essentially mandatory. During the initial negotiations for the importation of the vaccines, some companies whose requirements were being pooled by the Go Negosyo network of presidential adviser on entrepreneurship Joey Concepcion were discouraged by the provision, and decided instead not to participate in the tripartite talks.
To attract many more firms — especially the smaller ones that only have enough money to buy vaccines for their workers — to launch their own vaccination programs, thus relieving the government of the task of inoculating those in the private sector workforce and speeding up the reopening of the economy, the administration needs to be crystal-clear that it will indeed do away with the “donation” provision for good.
Mr. Duterte’s order to fast-track the paperwork for the importation process is not enough — that should have been done months ago, in fact. Considering the direct access that major Philippine companies have to vaccine suppliers and manufacturers through their international networks and contacts, and their much more efficient importation and logistics systems, waiving the “donation” provision will be a big boost to ramping up the country’s national vaccination drive. More delays, hurdles, and ill-considered preconditions, and the country will continue to languish in the maw of a never-ending public health and economic crisis.
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