Duterte to certify as urgent bill relaxing procurement rules on LGUs purchasing COVID-19 vaccines

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 11) — President Rodrigo Duterte will certify as urgent the passage of a bill relaxing procurement rules on local governments in the purchase of COVID-19 vaccines, his spokesman Harry Roque said Thursday.

“PRRD (President Rodrigo Roa Duterte) will inform Congress that it is an urgent admin bill,” Roque told CNN Philippines in a text message.

Vaccine czar Carlito Galvez said in a Senate hearing on Thursday that the presidential certification is in the works.

“We are now drafting [the certification] for the President to make this bill an urgent bill so that it would be passed immediately,” he said.

Senate Bill 2042 would allow local governments to “directly” purchase COVID-19 vaccines. A similar measure has been filed at the House of Representatives.

In the Senate version, local governments can make up to 50% down payment on COVID-19 vaccines if required by manufacturers during the period of the state of calamity due to the pandemic, which is in effect until September 12 this year. The Government Auditing Code and a 2005 memorandum order only authorize the President to allow an advance payment of 15% percent of the contract price.

A number of local governments have entered into deals with British-Swedish firm AstraZeneca and the national government to buy vaccines for their constituents. AstraZeneca is asking for a 20% down payment, San Juan Mayor Francis Zamora, who signed a tripartite agreement with the vaccine maker and the national government, said Wednesday.

SB 2042 also exempts local governments from complying with the Government Procurement Reform Act, the Local Government Code, and other related laws to hasten the purchase and administration of anti-coronavirus shots.

But as a safeguard, only COVID-19 vaccines approved for emergency use can be bought.

Proposed amendments

In the same hearing, a Department of Science and Technology official opposed the provision that permits LGUs to directly purchase vaccines not approved for general use.

Dr. Jaime Montoya, DOST-Philippine Council for Health Research and Development executive director suggested that the bill "must emphasize that LGUs will only be allowed to procure their own COVID-19 vaccines with emergency use authorization through a tripartite agreement with the national government."

Montoya said vaccine developers do not usually engage with LGUs for the supply of products still under development or those that have been granted EUA. "They only do so if there is a special arrangement made through the national government," he added.

He also said the bill must specify those responsible for compensating people who might exhibit adverse reactions to COVID-19 vaccines.

He pointed out manufacturers with EUA "are not liable" to provide indemnification to vaccinated people as the development of their product is incomplete.

Galvez said he supports Montoya's suggestions, adding that the national government must provide the indemnification.

He also said the absence of an indemnification law could hamper the delivery of the initial 117,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine made by Pfizer. These Pfizer vaccine shots from the COVAX facility are supposed to arrive this month. COVAX is an initiative led by the World Health Organization, along with the vaccine alliance Gavi and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, which seeks to provide over 150 participating countries equitable access to coronavirus vaccines.

“The significant volumes (of COVID-19 vaccines) given by COVAX and manufacturer[s] can be hindered without an indemnification law,” Galvez said.

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said the funds for indemnification could be sourced from the contingent fund under the 2021 national budget. Senator Sonny Angara agreed, saying it will help address the issue of compensation.

Galvez also recommended extending until the end of the year the validity of the proposed law.

More harm than good?

While proponents of the measure see it as a solution to delays in vaccine arrival, a group of healthcare workers warned of graver consequences should it be signed into law.

Healthcare Professionals' Alliance Against COVID-19 opposed the bill's passage, saying it may expose Filipinos to more danger and "make local policy makers liable for wrong decisions." This is because the bill will bypass the required recommendations of experts from the Health Technology Assessment Council, HPAAC said.

The group also warned the bill could lead to maldistribution of supply based on an LGU's capacity to pay rather than the need for the vaccine. To ensure vulnerable sectors and high-risk areas are prioritized, the medical professionals said there should be centralized procurement and distribution by the national government.

Citing the World Health Organization, the group said of the nearly 200 million people who have been vaccinated globally, 75% are from 10 rich countries.

"Meanwhile, at least 130 countries have not vaccinated a single person,” the HPAAC said. "We aggravate this inequity by doing the same thing locally — distributing geographically according to capacity to pay."

The alliance also cautioned that the bill could drive increases in vaccine costs.

"Allowing LGUs to directly purchase from sellers or manufacturers will escalate vaccine prices because the country will lose the scale or volume that one buyer has," it said. "At the same time, central government's monopsony power as 'single buyer' is also diminished, likewise resulting in higher prices."

HPAAC said LGUs have important roles in fighting COVID-19, but "procuring vaccines is not one of them." Instead, local governments must focus its efforts and funds on other equally important aspects of the immunization program, such as profiling recipients, hiring and training vaccinators, conducting simulations, and assuring cold chain logistics, among others, the alliance said.