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Senators gear up for Covid vaccine rollout inquiry

SENATE probers, signalling urgency, are lining up witnesses and resource persons to be called to testify in an upcoming Covid vaccine inquiry this Wednesday by senators convening as the Committee of the Whole even before Congress resumes its scheduled regular sessions onJanuary 18.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III confirmed over the weekend they intend to finalize the list of resource persons and send out the formal invitations this Monday.

In an interview with DWIZ, Sotto said, partly in Filipino, “If we have not yet sent out the invitations, on Monday, when we get back to office, we will finalize the list of invitees.”

At the same time, the Senate leader confirmed that apart from Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, also in the initial list of
resource persons are officials of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) who
are “involved in the issue of immunization or operation.”

Sotto indicated that they need to trim down Senator Francis Pangilinan’s suggested long list of resource persons to be called to testify at the initial hearing, to ensure an orderly proceeding. “They gave me a rather long list, so I asked his staff to reduce it,” he added.

“I checked those that I think should be priority, and then they will counter check if they want to add some more; but we can’t have two dozen people, they can’t all be able to speak, especially if we give each senator 10 minutes to speak.”

Sotto said the resource persons invited to appear before the initial hearing of Committee of the Whole are “those involved in the Inter-Agency Task Force [IATF] at the front lines of the Covid-19 response.”

“Those involved in the IATF, the Department of Health, on issues of  distribution, allocation and all those involved in the inoculation, those will be invited,” the Senate leader said.

The Senate leader noted that in virtual hearings, all senators are usually present and ask questions; hence, the need to prioritize the list of invitees according to a clear agenda of the Committee of the Whole.

“So, we will first invite those essential, important [to the inquiry] and then we can set another hearing a few days after, or during the session when we already have formal sessions. That’s quite far off,  given that the vaccine purchase by the Philippines was delayed.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro L. Locsin Jr. earlier complained that “someone dropped the ball” from the Philippine side in negotiations with US-based vaccine manufacturer Pfizer.

Sotto indicated they expected “further delays” in vaccine delivery. “The government purchase was delayed; and when it reaches our shore, expect further delays because our FDA insists on checking it again and accrediting it even though it has been approved by the FDA of other countries.

Beside the decision to  set aside P72.5 billion in the budget for the vaccine program, part of the consideration is “where to store or set aside the vaccine,” Sotto said.

Summons to PSG

ON Senate Minority Leader Franklin M. Drilon’s suggestion to also summon the chief of the Presidential Security Group to explain the innoculation of PSG members with vaccine that has not been cleared with the FDA, Sotto backed Drilon’s idea but said the PSG will not be called in the initial hearing, noting that this was not even in the privilege speech of Pangilinan,  which had triggered the inquiry.

The Pangilinan speech had sought for a Senate hearing to have relevant officials explain the country’s “vaccine road map” and was delivered before the controversy broke over the questioned immunization of the President’s security escorts without clearance from the Food and Drug Administration.

Sotto said a “different hearing” could be called on the PSG issue, but indicated he will not object if his peers want to tackle it in the Committee of the Whole.

He signalled a more permissive view, however, on the question of people willingly taking shots with vaccines not authorized yet by the local FDA, stressing it’s a matter of personal choice.

When many items even advertise they have “no FDA approved therapeutic claims,” Sotto said, this simply means, “it’s their own lookout. If someone wants to use it, someone flies in with the immunization vial, and wants to use it on himself or his friend, is there a law against that? None.”

This—the matter of PSG immunization may not be in the purview of the Senate Committee of the Whole inquiry, which focuses on how the goverment will handle the procurement and distribution of the vaccines we will import, Sotto stressed.

“That’s the issue of the Committee of the Whole. If they wish to introduce another matter, maybe during the hearing, then they could do so. But that will not be our priority agenda,” Sotto said, adding such matter can be tackled by “another committee” such as the Committee on Health. The latter is chaired by Sen. Christopher “Bong” Go, a former top aide of the President, who continues to keep close ties to the Palace.

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