Duterte slams Robredo for calling for HTAC review of Sinovac vaccine

Vice President Leni Robredo again drew the ire of President Rodrigo Duterte for backing the call of some healthcare workers for a review of Sinovac's COVID-19 vaccine by the Health Technology Assessment Council (HTAC).

Duterte, in his weekly public address on Monday, March 1, again spoke of Robredo in derogatory terms and pelted insults at her for supposedly making it appear to the public that his government was flouting regulatory processes for vaccines.

"Anong proseso ang gusto mo, na tapos naman 'yang lahat. Gusto mo dagdagan, eh bakit hindi mo sinabi noon na ito lahat kailangan? Ngayon may proseso na bago," Duterte said in front of pandemic task force officials at the Malacañang Golf Clubhouse.

(What process do you want? We've finished with those. You want to add to it, so why didn't you say before that this is needed? Now, you're saying there's a new process.)

During her radio show on Sunday, February 28, Robredo had agreed with some healthcare workers calling for the HTAC to first come out with its recommendations on CoronaVac, the Sinovac vaccines that arrived that day from China.

She said that since HTAC issued positive recommendations for the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines, it would be prudent to wait for its recommendations on CoronaVac as well.

"Kung ano iyong ni-require natin from Pfizer and AstraZeneca, ganoon din sana sa Sinovac, kahit pa donated ito," she had said.

(What were required of Pfizer and AstraZeneca should also be required of Sinovac, even if the vaccines are donated.)

Duterte lashed out, saying the HTAC review is only recommendatory in nature and is not required before the government can roll out vaccines, given the emergency brought about by the pandemic.

"What are you doing? Every time you open your mouth, it seems to be idiotic, e recommendatory nga (it's only recommendatory)," said the President.

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque was quick to back up Duterte, saying during the meeting that the HTAC is not meant to duplicate the functions of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which alone issues emergency use authorization for vaccines.

Duterte even took issue with Robredo saying he should be among the first to get vaccinated in public to increase confidence in immunization. To counter the Vice President, Duterte wrongly claimed that senior citizens like him are not among the priority groups in the vaccination drive.

"Masyado kang apurado (You are too impatient). Sa protocol nga (In the protocol), we are not even considered as those needing or occupying a priority in the application of COVID-19," said Duterte.

Senior citizens are actually the second priority of the government, after healthcare workers and critical government frontliners.

What's HTAC, and what's important about its review?

The HTAC is a group of medical and health experts appointed by the health secretary to conduct assessments of health technologies – like medicines, vaccines, or health devices – to be purchased or used by the Department of Health (DOH) or the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation for Filipinos.

It was created by the Universal Health Care Act, which Duterte signed into law in February 2019.

In early February, the HTAC released its recommendations for the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines, saying their "positive health impacts" outweigh risks.

While the 600,000 Sinovac doses that arrived on Sunday are donated, vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr has said the DOH plans to procure one million more CoronaVac doses in March.

The call for HTAC's recommendations on Sinovac's vaccine comes as some health workers did not show as much enthusiasm for the China-made vaccine as they did for the Pfizer vaccine.

At the Philippine General Hospital, for example, only some 10% of personnel there expressed willingness to get vaccinated with CoronaVac compared to over 90% who had said yes to vaccination, thinking that they would be getting Pfizer jabs, according to PGH Director Gerardo Legaspi.

The FDA had initially not recommended CoronaVac for healthcare workers, citing a 50.4% efficacy rating in Brazil clinical trials that involved healthcare workers.

But experts advising the government eventually greenlit CoronaVac for healthcare workers. But healthcare workers can also opt to wait for AstraZeneca vaccines without getting sent to the back of the line, said Malacañang. – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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