President Duterte does the right thing on vaccine procurement

IN a time when it seems news of tangible progress in the fight against the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) is wishful thinking at best, it is a welcome relief to report something encouraging. Such is the case with the directive given by President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday that as many private enterprises as possible be allowed to import vaccines, which should greatly expand and speed up the country’s vaccination program.

In his address to the nation on Monday night, the President said the private sector had been allowed to immediately open the buying of vaccines wherever they could get them as the supply given to the government had been limited.

Granted, the reality is that the President’s order does not significantly change the existing process that a private enterprise, such as a company wishing to procure vaccines for its employees, has to follow. Private sector importers will still have to sign a tripartite agreement with the government and the vaccine supplier, and there are good reasons for this arrangement to be enforced, as we have previously discussed in this space. Any vaccinations carried out through the efforts of private enterprises must be coordinated with the larger national program, and the vaccines are at this point only authorized for “emergency use,” as they have not been approved for commercial sale.

But Duterte’s directive is extremely helpful in a number of ways. First, it eliminates the uncertainty many private companies have had about whether or not they could actually obtain vaccines. Second, having given a clear directive, the President has implicitly clarified some nagging uncertainty about liability coverage in case of claims of injury because of vaccinations (except in cases of intentional misuse or gross negligence), in effect confirming that the provisions of Republic Act 11525, or the “Covid-19 Vaccination Program Act of 2021,” will be followed. Finally, the President’s “marching order” will oblige the responsible government agencies to streamline the required processes; Duterte explained that he directed “vaccine czar” Carlito Galvez Jr. to “sign all the necessary papers” to facilitate private-sector importation.

The President’s announcement was met with approval by lawmakers, who noted that companies which are able to provide vaccines to their employees will be able to safely return people to work more quickly, helping to speed up the economic recovery. The expansion of private sector access to vaccines also helps to dispel suspicions that parties within the government or connected to certain officials may be trying to monopolize vaccine supplies.

Of course, the opening up of vaccine procurement to the private sector is not a “magic bullet,” and expectations about how rapidly it will improve our currently grim circumstances should be sensibly managed. The supply of vaccines on a worldwide basis is gradually improving, but is still far short of what is needed. Private enterprises may have a slight advantage over the government in having funds to purchase vaccines more readily available, but the speed with which vaccines can be procured and distributed will continue to be governed by how much has actually been manufactured, no matter who is seeking to acquire them. It will still take a considerable amount of time, most likely well into next year at least, before the vaccination effort will approach the much sought-after level of “herd immunity” that will allow life to return to something close to what we consider “normal.”

Even so, the participation of the private sector in the vaccination effort means that, at the very least, the country will be carrying out vaccinations to the full limit of its capacity. That is something that most believe, fairly or not, has not happened yet. With visible evidence that vaccinations are being distributed to as many people as possible as quickly as possible, people’s acceptance of and adherence to other measures needed to control the spread of Covid-19 is likely to improve greatly. With the Duterte’s order, it is now possible to say, even this week when the pandemic is at the worst levels it ever has been in the Philippines, that there is light at the end of the tunnel, even though that tunnel may still be very long.