The necessity of anti-Covid vaccines and the high cost of importing them drove government to encourage local and foreign pharmaceutical companies to put up vaccine manufacturing facilities right in the Philippines. 

But three huge firms that initially showed interest canceled their plans because of alleged extortion attempts from some government agencies. 

The Anti-Red Tape Authority (ARTA) is looking into reports of alleged corruption encountered by some pharmaceutical companies planning to set up vaccine manufacturing plants in the country. 

ARTA Director Gen. Jeremiah Belgica, in a virtual briefing, did not name the three major pharmaceutical companies that were asked to pay “illegal fees.”  

But the companies that have expressed interest in vaccine manufacturing in the country include Glovax Biotech Corp., United Laboratories Inc., IG/IP Biotech and Dr. Zen Biotech.

The reports are so serious that ARTA endorsed to the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC) a lifestyle check on government employees and officials involved in the processing and issuance of business permits such as the Department of Trade and Industry and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).   

Earlier, ARTA issued a show-cause order to FDA Center for Drug Regulation and Research (CDRR) Director Jesusa Cirunay to explain the reason for over 600 pending applications from pharmaceutical companies who submitted complete requirements.

Under Executive Order 43, the PACC “may, upon instructions of the President, or motu proprio, conduct lifestyle checks and fact-finding inquiries on acts or omissions of all presidential appointees including those outside the executive branch of the government, which may be violative of the law and /or constitute serious misconduct tantamount to betrayal of public trust.”

Belgica said ARTA gathered leads on the background of individuals endorsed for PACC’s lifestyle checks but declined to provide details.

He said corruption and red tape are closely linked and when government processes take a long time, individuals are forced to find other ways for faster completion of transactions by paying “grease money.”

Belgica renewed his call to Health Sec. Francisco Duque III and FDA Director Gen. Eric Domingo to act on the hold-out on FDA applications.

“We have a terminology in law ‘beyond pecuniary estimation’, I would say. It’s really hard to assign monetary equivalence when we’re talking about the lives that probably would have been saved and, you know, sickness would have been addressed sooner if only these were acted upon,” he said. 

He said there are about 40 to 50 companies with applications for renewal of permits for products that have been delayed.

“In the time of pandemic, you know we have this kind of problem with our regulatory agency of drugs that (needs them to) be more compassionate. I’m really heartbroken,” he said.

“What we’re saying is, take action at the right time because red tape in the time of pandemic could kill,” he said.  “We’re very much interested to know more about this and pursue an investigation,” he said.

ARTA is one of the agencies working on the creation of a fast track for local vaccine manufacturers.

Belgica said at least two companies are almost ready to  “ import (vaccines) in bulk and fill and finish (them) in this manufacturing plant,” he said.

He also said ARTA expects vaccine manufacturing plants to be built in 10 months once all conditions are met.