Duterte wants entire Philippine population given COVID-19 vaccine for free

Stepping up his populist messaging during the pandemic, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said his goal is for his government to shoulder COVID-19 vaccination for each Filipino.

He declared this during a "message to the people" aired late Wednesday, October 14, after his meeting with coronavirus task force officials.

"I have the money already for the vaccine. But hahanap pa ako ng maraming pera (I will look for more money) because, you know, there are now 113 million Filipinos and to me, ideally, all should have the vaccine. Without exception, lahat (all)," said Duterte. ([PODCAST] Duterte, Trump, Bolsonaro: The 'medical populists')

This departs from his previous speeches when he said wealthy Filipinos will not get such assistance from the government because they can "buy their own vaccine."

Duterte reiterated that priority will be given to the poorest Filipino households (specifically those listed as conditional cash transfer beneficiaries), soldiers, and police. The Chief Executive previously said he trusts only the military to distribute the vaccine when it becomes available.

Can the government afford it?

No economic manager was present at the Wednesday meeting. So far, we know that Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III targets a P20-billion fund for the purchase of a COVID-19 vaccine.

This fund will come from a loan to be provided by the Land Bank and the Development Bank of the Philippines, two government financial institutions. The loan will be given to the Philippine International Trading Corp, which has been authorized to purchase vaccines for the government.

This fund is to shoulder only an "initial" batch of vaccines.

Apart from this, there's a P2.5-billion allocation for vaccines in the proposed 2021 national budget.

Preference for China, Russia vaccines

Though Duterte never lacks in emphasizing his dire need for an effective COVID-19 vaccine, he indicated a preference for certain vaccines in his Wednesday speech.

"Para sa akin (For me), it's either China or Russia, okay na ako (I'm okay with that)," he said.

"Wala akong – sinasabi nila Pfizer, Moderna, 'yung western, US. Okay rin 'yan kasi may proseso nga eh," Duterte continued. (I have nothing – they say Pfizer, Moderna, the western, US. They're also okay because there's a process.)

But he reserved a ringing vote of confidence for a Chinese or Russian vaccine, saying he'd be "glad to open up [his] sleeves" for an injection if China or Russia would just give him a call.

"Those of you who are asking if the Chinese vaccines are safe? I can say China is a modern country and it has all the wherewithals to make its country whose integrity is fully protected by its achievement," said Duterte.

As for Russia, the President said he had spoken to outgoing Russian Ambassador Igor Khovaev about plans to put up Russian pharmaceutical facilities in the Philippines.

The conversation took place during Khovaev's farewell call to Duterte at the Malacañang Golf Clubhouse earlier that day.

Philippine vaccine experts are still studying documents sent over by Russia's Gamaleya Institute about the Phase 1 and 2 clinical trials of its vaccine, Sputnik V. The expert panel will decide whether or not to green-light Phase 3 clinical trials for the vaccine in the Philippines.

Duterte has declared he has so much confidence in the Russian vaccine that he is willing to be the first to get inoculated with it.

Though Duterte is partial to a China or Russia vaccine, the Philippines is also participating in the Gavi COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) Facility.

Through this initiative, the Philippines is assured a supply of some 20% of its vaccine needs, a supply that would likely include whatever vaccine is proven effective, whether or not from China or Russia.

Duterte was told by Health Secretary Francisco Duque III that a vaccine may be available in the Philippines in April 2021. Experts say this is an optimistic time frame. – 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.