Utilization, not posturing, key to avoiding vaccine waste
The Manila Times
THE Senate is evidently hell-bent on launching a “hearing in aid of legislation” into reports that several million doses of Covid-19 vaccines worth between P5 billion and P13 billion have expired, or are about to expire. The potential waste of vaccines is, of course, a most serious and alarming problem. But we are skeptical that a case can be made that yet another “hearing in aid of legislation” is the best way to solve it. On Tuesday, Sen. Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go said he would immediately call for a public hearing once a resolution filed to investigate reports of unused and expired Covid-19 vaccines is referred to his committee. He was referring to the resolution filed by the deputy minority leader, Sen. Risa Hontiveros, seeking an investigation in aid of legislation on the unused and expired vaccines, saying this large-scale wastage should never be tolerated. “As the chairman of the Senate Committee on Health and Demography, once the resolution is referred to us, we will immediately conduct a hearing on the status of our Covid-19 response including the reported expiring vaccines,” Go said in a statement. The resolution filed by Senator Hontiveros explained that it is imperative for the government to strive for less Covid-19 vaccine wastage, accurately report vaccine wastage, identify drivers of wastage and implement effective interventions to reduce it. Indeed, those are all important objectives for the government’s vaccination management program led by the Department of Health (DoH). Having already been spelled out in the resolution calling for a “hearing in aid of legislation,” however, it seems the actual hearing would be superfluous; unless, of course, there is another, more public image-related purpose intended for it beyond addressing the actual problem, which is to administer the vaccines to those who need them in a timely manner. For its part, the DoH has already set a target of administering booster shots to between 11 million and 23 million vaccinated individuals within the first 100 days of the Marcos administration, or by September 8, although the details about how exactly it intends to accomplish that are a bit vague. While not commenting on the call for a “hearing in aid of legislation” directly, Sen. Imee Marcos demonstrated that she is perhaps a bit more practical-minded than her fellow senators by suggesting that the DoH could simply donate the soon-to-expire vaccine doses to make it easier for anyone who needs to complete their vaccination or get a booster shot. As her suggestion acknowledges, one of the biggest obstacles to distributing the vaccines on a wider scale more quickly has been the DoH’s overweening, bureaucratic control of the supply. In the early stages of the vaccination campaign, when supplies were limited, prioritizing their distribution to the most at-risk people first made sense. Those conditions no longer apply, however; in fact, the expiry of a large number of vaccine doses is undeniable evidence that there is a surplus in the supply. We can offer one suggestion to implement Senator Marcos’ call, and it is frankly surprising that it has not yet been considered by the responsible authorities. In order to reach the largest number of people in the shortest amount of time, the vaccines should be turned over to the nation’s large pharmacy chains — Mercury Drug, Watson’s, South Star Drug, The Generics Pharmacy, Botika ng Bayan and others. These not only have thousands of locations that are easily accessible to the public, including in places that the government vaccine managers have found difficult to reach, they already have well-developed distribution systems and the needed competence to handle medicines. This would virtually guarantee that vaccines are distributed in the most efficient possible way, and would probably result in the DoH’s being able to exceed its 100-day target. If senators want to investigate something, we would recommend that they focus on how they can use their presumed public influence to combat vaccine hesitancy, which again seems to be on the rise as the pandemic becomes less threatening, rather than a problem that could be solved in an hour or two with a Zoom call among the relevant stakeholders.