Blue Ribbon to subpoena pharmas that skipped closed session on COVID-19 vaccine NDAs

The Senate blue ribbon committee will issue a subpoena to pharmaceutical companies that skipped the executive session where the prices of government-procured COVID-19 vaccines were supposedly disclosed, Senator Francis Tolentino said Friday.

“There were pharmaceutical companies who were not around so the committee  will be constrained to issue a subpoena to force the pharmaceutical companies to be present during the next hearing,” Tolentino, chairman of the Blue Ribbon panel, said in an online interview.

He said some companies will send representatives to the next hearings but those who were present during the executive session were “very cooperative” with one pharmaceutical firm even disclosing everything to the committee.

Tolentino refused to name the pharmaceutical companies who were present during the session.

Asked if the committee will disclose the real cost of each COVID-19 vaccine that the government procured in the succeeding hearings, Tolentino answered in the affirmative.

“Yes, definitely. Kaya lang may absent lang nung hearing, nung executive session. ‘Yung iba naman kumukuha pa ng permiso sa mother company nila para sabihin ‘yung presyo pero sa committee sinabi na nila,” he said.

One of the issues that was tackled during the executive session is the companies’ assertion that they cannot disclose all information covered by the NDA to the Senate as it is not a signatory to the contracts, Tolentino said.

However, he asserted that the Blue Ribbon is part of the Senate, which is also a branch of the Philippine government.

Likewise, Tolentino said they are waiting for the arrival of Vince Dizon who also played a role in the COVID-19 vaccine procurement, being the former deputy chief implementer of the National Task Force against COVID-19.

In an interview Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel said the senators are still not informed of all the prices of COVID-19 vaccines despite the executive session last Wednesday.

Pimentel likewise questioned the propriety of entering into NDAs, which cover the prices of the vaccines, with big pharmaceutical companies.

Tolentino shared the same position, saying prices of vaccines should not be part of the NDA.

Should the government enter into an NDA, Tolentino said this must have a shorter effectivity period.

While he said that prices should be disclosed, the senator said the technical specifications of the vaccines should still be covered by the NDAs.

In the same executive session, Tolentino said the Department of Health was “cautioned” on the procurement of more COVID-19 vaccines.

Since there will be 1 million doses of bivalent vaccines from COVAX facility that will arrive  in the country, Tolentino said he advised the Health officials to “slow down” in using the  funds from the national budget to procure new doses.

The DOH was likewise told to study the NDAs given the complexity of this agreement, he said.

The Health Department has agreed with the suggestion for the Office of the Solicitor General to study the coverage of NDAs, he added.

During the first Blue Ribbon hearing on the NDAs with the government, DOH officer-in-charge Ma. Rosario Vergeire explained that some pharmaceutical companies did not agree to disclose the specifics of their contracts for the COVID-19 vaccines procurement.

In December, the DOH submitted several documents related to the national government’s COVID-19 vaccine procurement to the Commission on Audit.

The issue on the NDAs was revived during the deliberations on the 2023 budget in November when Senator Francis Escudero asked how the COA conducted the audit on the appropriations and borrowings that were allocated for vaccine procurement when there were no reports from the agencies involved.

Senator Sonny Angara, who was defending COA’s budget, said the agency conducted an audit on the quantity and the utilization of the vaccines but not on the actual funds that were used for the procurement.

Angara said COA “felt restrained” by the NDAs at first but since Escudero raised the issue, the state auditors realized that they are not bound by the NDAs as they are not a party to the agreement. He then told Escudero that the COA will assert its legal right and gather more information about the procurement.

Last Tuesday, Senator Risa Hontiveros renewed her call for the DOH to disclose the cost of the government-procured COVID-19 vaccines, saying the NDAs with the pharmaceutical companies had now outlived its purpose.

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