Department of Health (DOH) officials may face graft charges if they insist on procuring further supplies of Remdesivir despite the World Health Organization (WHO) recommendation against its use to treat  COVID-19 patients, warned Anakalusugan Rep. Michael Defensor.

In another development, Deputy Speaker Lito Atienza  asked why the DOH  is still buying another PHP1 billion worth of Remdesivir (which costs up to PHP8,500 per vial) despite WHO’s recommendation.

Defensor said under  the law, DOH officials may be held liable for a corrupt act if they perform a transaction that is “grossly disadvantageous to the government. The potential liability is there, whether they profited from the procurement,” Defensor pointed out.

The offense is punishable with up to 10 years in prison and perpetual disqualification from public office.

Defensor said they consider all new purchases of Remdesivir as reckless and foolish spending in light of the WHO recommendation. Also, the government is scrounging for money to buy more COVID-19 vaccines and PHP2,000 cash aid for every Filipino is being contemplated under the Bayanihan 3 bill.

“All further purchases of Remdesivir – after the WHO came out with its adverse recommendation – may be deemed as transactions highly detrimental to the government under the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act,” Defensor said.

Defensor also said they would urge the Department of Budget and Management to re-purpose the money meant for Remdesivir, preferably to acquire more COVID-19 vaccines.

He cited the statement  from WHO which said evidence from the “solidarity trial” showed that Remdesivir “had no important effect” in reducing the need for mechanical ventilation, shortening the time to clinical improvement, lessening the risk of mortality and on other COVID-19 patient outcomes.

“The problem with Remdesivir is its outrageous price, and yet, based on the findings of the WHO, the drug offers no significant relief to patients,” Defensor said.

Meanwhile Atienza assailed the DOH’s “wasteful double standard of promoting a very expensive investigational drug such as Remdesivir, while stonewalling other potential low-priced treatments, including human-grade Ivermectin that costs only PHP35 to PHP40 per capsule.

“The WHO recommends against the use of Remdesivir because it does not have any positive effect on COVID-19 patient outcomes. And yet, the DOH is still irresponsibly using the drug in addition to standard care for patients,” Atienza said.

“We recommend against administering Remdesivir in addition to standard care. There isn’t enough evidence to support to use of Remdesivir in hospitalized COVID-19 patients, regardless of disease severity,” the WHO said in its Therapeutics and COVID-19 Living Guideline.

“The DOH should stop importing and using Remdesivir. Otherwise, the public will start suspecting that some (department) officials are making money on the purchases,” Atienza emphasized. 

In ditching Remdesivir, Atienza said, “ the WHO is also rightly worried that use of the costly drug might divert and deplete limited public money that may be better spent to prevent the spread of COVID-19 via more aggressive testing, contact tracing and isolation strategies.”

“Other wealthy nations can throw their money away on Remdesivir if they want to but, in our case, we simply can’t afford to,” Atienza said.

The DOH earlier said that its Disease Prevention and Control Bureau has earmarked another PHP1 billion to procure additional stocks of Remdesivir that were already running low.

“Remdesivir is currently being used as an additional medication for COVID-19 patients,” the DOH said in a press statement posted on its website.

The drug’s use in addition to standard care for COVID-19 patients became even more prominent when presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said he received five vials of Remdesivir when he was recently confined at the state-run Philippine General Hospital.