A dose of hope

As pharmaceutical companies report good results on their COVID-19 vaccines, it is imperative that the Philippines not be left behind in gaining access to these critical resources. Under the leadership of Sec. Carlito Galvez, the private sector has been working closely with a pharmaceutical company to support the national government’s vaccine procurement efforts.

The vaccines will come from a pharmaceutical company that has a zero-profit program for 2021. The private sector will purchase a certain quantity of the vaccines and donate half to government frontliners, while the other 50 percent will cover the most vulnerable private sector employees, both regular and contractual.

As of this interview, the generous private sector partners throwing their weight behind this initiative are International Container Terminal Services, Inc., BDO, LT Group, San Miguel, Go Negosyo, Wilcon Depot, Yazaki Torres, LBC Express, Mercury, Universal Leaf, Aboitiz, Metro Pacific Investments Corporation, Federation of Filipino Chinese Chambers of Commerce & Industry, GT Capital Holdings, and First Pacific Health. More donors are expected to follow. Here is my interview with Cito Beltran of ONE News discussing this further.

Cito: What’s your priority at the moment?

JAC: Ever since the pandemic hit, we focused on trying to create visibility through testing innovations. We started with rapid antibody test kits, donated RT-PCR equipment to the government, then funded research on pooled testing. We validated antigen test kits and worked with Israeli companies on breath and saliva testing. Now, we are looking at saliva as the specimen for RT-PCR testing to bring down the cost even further.

All these strategies are designed to help us safely re-open the economy. Although some sectors are opening up, it’s not enough. We can only re-open fully when there’s a clear signal that the infection is going down and the numbers will not rebound. Only a vaccine can achieve that.

We hope to sign the tripartite agreement this week. The way it works is we purchase a certain quantity from the pharma company, which we then donate to the government. All donations will be coursed through the DOH which will implement the deployment. A portion of that will be for the poorest of the poor and the frontliners.

Cito: What I see is you are trying to bring to the attention of the DOH and the national government options, technologies and science that they could incorporate in their fight against COVID-19. Normally, medicine tends to be traditional and slow. What’s being done about this?

JAC: I think the DOH has to be very careful, but it’s a balance between the situation. There is an element of risk in everything. There is no perfect test and both the public and private sector are working together to mitigate the risk.

The government is the one ordering in bulk. Sec Galvez wants the private sector to take care of its own flock: our employees and contractors, provided that we follow the priority sectors of frontliners and the poorest of the poor.

Cito: Are you going to push for a limit on the price of the vaccine locally? That’s our problem with RT-PCR wherein the price range is so wide.

JAC: Based on my understanding, every effort will be G2G due to limited supplies. This pharma company has a non profit program. This will be given free to the public. The private sector is not charging anything. I’m sure that the government is not going to charge the people.

With Pfizer and Moderna, you know the efficacy. With this pharma company, there is some element of risk of whether the vaccine will work. If it does not make phase 3, then we will not get back our deposit or we will only get back a part of it. The private sector is taking a gamble. The risk-reward is great, but at least, we have a position. What’s worse is if we take no action at all.

We want to tell the Filipino people that there is hope, there is light at the end of the tunnel. We want to restore hope because hope brings back confidence.

The government did not ask us to support the program. We are augmenting their procurement efforts, but they have their initiatives. The government has its own negotiations with the same pharma company, among many other pharma companies that they’re talking to.

Cito: Are you at liberty to mention the projected price of the vaccine per dose? The fear of most people is that the vaccine is going to cost a fortune.

JAC: Since this pharma company launched a zero-profit program, the price is very low. I was told that they are looking at trials in December in the Philippines. They will have a readout soon which will determine whether the vaccine works or not.

In the case of Go Negosyo, we are donating 50,000 doses to MSMEs. That’s 25,000 people because two doses are required.

We don’t have all the resources, but we can create more impact by bringing together all the private sector companies. I feel that the only way we can really go back to our normal lives is to get the cure into this country as soon as possible. By 2022, there might be more supply in the market. But can we afford one more year of suffering? We have to act now.