Russia, China in lead as Philippines seeks deals for Covid-19 vaccines


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As the Philippines battles a coronavirus pandemic that has cost it nearly 8,000 lives out of more than 400,000 cases reported, it is banking on several of the Covid-19 vaccines in late-stage trials by other countries for future respite.
Earlier this week, the country’s newly appointed vaccine tsar, Carlito Galvez, said the government was in talks with 17 vaccine manufacturers from 10 different countries or regions, including China, the US and Russia, about providing a potential vaccine. No deals have yet been struck, however.
Other countries that could supply the vaccine are Australia, Germany, Israel, India, Singapore, Taiwan and Britain, Galvez said, adding that the government’s target is to procure 50 million doses of vaccines for 25 million people out of its 113 million population by next year. Priority will be given to health care workers, frontline government workers and the elderly, he said.
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US drug maker Pfizer, which is collaborating with Germany’s BioNTech, has already stepped in to offer its vaccine, according to the Philippine ambassador to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez. Earlier this week, the company said the vaccine showed an “extraordinary” 90 per cent rate of effectiveness in early trials.
Romualdez said Pfizer had agreed to sell the vaccine to the Philippines as soon as it is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. The Philippines has yet to finalise pre-orders with Pfizer, however, or with any other vaccine manufacturer.
“We started talking to American firms three to four months ago, and Pfizer was the first one to get in touch,” Romualdez said during a televised news conference. “The good news is the vaccines will be sold to many of their allies, specifically the Philippines, at a not-so-expensive price.”
Romualdez estimated Pfizer could charge the Philippines about US$5 per dose.
One issue with the Pfizer vaccine is the challenge in importing it. Pfizer’s vaccine can only survive in deep-freeze temperatures of minus 70-80 degrees Celsius (minus 94-112 Fahrenheit). At the moment, the country has limited cold-storage facilities to handle the vaccines, but the Philippines’ Department of Health is exploring partnerships with the private sector to build more.
Under the government’s proposed 2021 budget, 2.5 billion pesos (US$51.5 million) has been set aside for vaccination procurement, although critics have deemed that an insufficient amount, as it would only be able to cover the vaccinations of five million Filipinos.
Galvez said that while a second stimulus package signed into law in September had set aside a provisional 10 billion pesos for vaccine procurement, the government may still need to tap loan facilities from the Asian Development Bank and World Bank.
The geopolitical competition for influence in the region is also shaping the country’s procurement of a vaccine.
While the Philippines is a US security treaty ally, President Rodrigo Duterte has, since taking office in 2016, sought closer economic ties with China and has also sought to elevate ties with Russia. Several months ago he said he would prefer to purchase vaccines from China and Russia because Western companies wanted a “cash advance” for orders.
On Wednesday, Galvez said Manila hoped to secure an agreement with at least four countries this month and was getting clearance from Duterte to make partial payments to reserve vaccines in advance.
He said the Philippines would probably join final-stage human trials this year for Russia’s Covid-19 shot – the Sputnik V vaccine – which the developers claim has a 92 per cent efficacy rate, though scientists say more testing is needed to prove that the vaccine is safe and effective.
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Philippine Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said an application by China’s Sinovac Biotech – whose vaccine is seen as the front runner of Beijing’s four top vaccine candidates – to run trials in the Philippines is also still being evaluated by an ethics board and needs “two clarifying documents”.
Galvez also said that China’s ambassador to the Philippines had assured the Philippines that it would be among the priority recipients of Chinese vaccines, part of which would be a “donation”.
Renato Cruz de Castro, professor of International Studies at the De La Salle University in Manila, said the competition for geopolitical influence was clearly emerging as the Philippines developed its vaccine procurement plan.
“We are caught in the middle,” he said. “And in a way, we’re also benefiting since the US and China are trying to catch our attention (through potential vaccine deals) to exert their influence on us, given our geography and the fact that we are a US ally that China wishes to win away from the US.”
Duterte has tempered his pivot to China somewhat in recent months. While he chose not to enforce an arbitration tribunal ruling at The Hague against Beijing’s expansive claims to the South China Sea in favour of Manila, he has had to address rising domestic discontent over Beijing’s activities in the resource-rich waters.
China’s pledges of billions of dollars of loans, aid and investment have also yet to materialise.
In recent weeks, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin said Manila would invoke its defence agreement with the US if China attacked any of its naval vessels. On Wednesday, he announced the government would, for the second time, suspend a decision to scrap a Visiting Forces Agreement with the US in favour of renegotiating their mutual defence agreement.
We should always be cautious about the implications of China’s influence on our national interests
Analysts said it was a political move to strike a balance between Washington and Beijing for maximum leverage as a new US administration takes office in January.
De Castro said the Philippines move showed that Duterte was ready to renew talks with the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden.
“He will get things where he can get the best deal,” he said of Duterte.
But Dindo Manhit, head of political think tank Stratbase Group, urged Manila to be more cautious over any deals with China, especially with its history in the South China Sea dispute.
“We should always be cautious about the implications of China’s influence on our national interests,” Manhit said. “Given China’s recent actions in the region, there is a possibility that it would use the vaccine as leverage when it needs to exert more political pressure to push for a certain agenda.”
Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines’ Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said China would likely use its vaccine as a diplomatic tool to smooth over frictions with Asean countries and “present a softer, friendlier face”.
“But I am not as worried that it will be as influential, though, considering that there will be many alternatives to its vaccines,” he said.
Additional reporting by Bloomberg and Reuters
This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.
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