By Corina Oliquino

MANILA — Presidential spokesman Harry Roque Jr. said on October 30, the Duterte administration will set up a task force to manage the immunization of an eventual COVID-19 vaccine.

In a statement, Roque said the task force was prescribed by the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) through Resolution Number 82 to “work on mechanisms for effective distribution of vaccines as well as orderly immunization activities” under the COVID-19 Immunization Program Management Organizational Structure with the Department of Health (DOH) as its lead agency.

“The creation of a task force is to ensure the successful and efficient deployment of COVID-19 vaccines to target population,” Roque said.

In a report by The Philippine Star, concurrent IATF spokesman Roque said the DOH has already been ordered to immediately convene Task Group COVID-19 Immunization Management for the establishment of sub-task groups.

“First of all, it’s part of the preparations for our acquisition of vaccines for COVID-19,” Roque said  in a television interview.

According to the report, the DOH earlier estimated the government will need ₱12.1 billion and not ₱2.5 billion as allocated on its 2021 budget to provide vaccines to priority recipients.

On October 26, Duterte voiced his intent to pay for the vaccines through government-to-government transaction after being briefed by his anti-COVID team that an eventual vaccine may become available in the country by the first quarter of 2021.

Vaccine czar

During a situation briefing on the effects of Typhoon Rolly in in Malacañang on the evening of, November 2, Duterte announced National Task Force (NTF) chief implementer Sec. Carlito Galvez Jr. to lead the country’s acquisition and distribution of vaccines for COVID-19.

“Pagbili ng bakuna, the negotiation, manufacture, production, or distribution, binigay ko yan kay Sec. Galvez. So, only Sec. Galvez is authorized to negotiate or whatever,” Duterte said, turning down the idea of forming a committee in charge of vaccine procurement which is prone to delays.

 “Ayaw ko yang committee-committee. Matagal yan. I have great faith in Charlie to really come up with the solutions for the problem,” he added.

In a report by Rappler, Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto, in a statement on October 24, urged Malacañang to appoint a vaccine OIC to ensure Filipinos will have access to an eventual COVID-19 vaccine.

“Naming the vaccine czar this early will also jumpstart the setting up of a ‘supply-to-syringe cold chain’ as the vaccines have to be moved and stored in freezing temperatures in a tropical country that lacks infrastructure for it,” Recto said.

Recto also noted that the goal of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) COVAX Solidarity Trial, a global collaboration to speed up the development, manufacture and distribution of new vaccines which the Philippines is a part of, is to deliver only two billion doses of vaccines by the end of 2021.

“Ilan ang matitira para sa mga Pilipino? Countries that have sunk billions into their development have firm orders so they are first in line. Pang-ilan tayo sa mahabang linya?” Recto said.

Department of Science and Technology (DOST) Sec. Fortunato dela Peña said the government may spend ₱1.5 billion for the facility for the COVAX trial.

President Duterte, on the other hand, is against purchasing vaccines from private pharmaceutical companies as the arrangement is prone to corruption.

“Maganda sana government-to-government ang transaction. Walang corruption, wala lahat kasi government-to-government,” Duterte said during a speech aired on October 27.

“Ayaw ko ‘yung private persons, magbili tayo sa private Chinese businessmen. Diyan magkakaloko-lokohan eh,” said the President.

Vaccine candidates

According to the New York Times, there are at least 48 COVID-19 vaccines undergoing clinical trials on humans and 89 pre-clinical vaccines under probe with animals.

In another report by The Philippine Star, Foreign Affairs Sec. Teodoro Locsin Jr. assured vaccine manufacturers of fair treatment from the Philippine government.

“One thing DFA will do is lay bare the guts of international vaccine development, contracting, deployment and manufacturing so no one corners the market, no one is excluded, private sector participation is encouraged,” Locsin posted on Twitter, noting he and officials of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will meet with representatives from UK-based AstraZeneca.

According to Locsin, the candidate vaccines under the COVAX trial with WHO are Inovio (US) Pfizer/Moderna (US), CureVac (Germany), Merck/Themis (US/Austria), AstraZeneca/Oxford (UK), University of Hong Kong, Novarax (US), Clover Biopharma (China) and University of Queensland (Australia).