By Archie Villaflores & Gwyneth Jemima Morales 

Back in January, when the Philippines confirmed its first case of novel coronavirus, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III encouraged the public to regularly wash their hands among others in order to maintain personal hygiene. Almost a year into the pandemic, Duque seems to demonstrate proper handwashing himself. 

The health chief has already been experiencing intense backlash over his supposed incompetence in handling the COVID-19 crisis and his alleged involvement on the P15-billion corruption on medical state insurer PhilHealth. 

This time, he is dragged into another issue amid accusations that he 'dropped the ball' in negotiations for a supply of vaccine from US pharmaceutical firm Pfizer.

Who 'dropped the ball'?

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. last week tweeted that he and Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Manuel "Babe" Romualdez were able to secure millions of vaccine doses to be shipped in the country by next month. 

However, plans were later on foiled because "someone dropped the ball" whom Senator Panfilo Lacson referred to as Duque. The senator added the "captain ball" always messes up but stays in power because the "coach refuses to replace him."

Lacson claimed the country would have secured the delivery of 10 million doses of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine as early as January next year if not for Duque’s “indifference,” after he “failed to work on the necessary documentary requirement.”

The senator revealed the health chief was not able to act promptly on the request of Pfizer for a confidentiality disclosure agreement (CDA). Duque eventually admitted that it took him three weeks to sign the said document after receiving go signal to do so from the Palace.

The country's missed opportunity to finalize the deal was taken advantage of by other nations including Singapore, according to Romualdez.

Duque's defense

But Duque denied Locsin's claim and said in a virtual media briefing that "there is no such thing as 'dropping of the ball.'"

Moreover, Duque claimed Pfizer never promised to provide the Philippines with 10 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine upon the signing of a CDA between the two parties. 

Vaccine czar Sec. Carlito Galvez Jr. rallied behind Duque, saying the health chief did his part and that negotiations with Pfizer were ongoing and at the “advanced stage”. The former military chief also slammed the issue as 'becoming political' and that there was neither 'bus missed nor ball dropped.'

Meanwhile, Malacañang also came into the defense of Duque. President Rodrigo Duterte had previously rejected calls to fire the health chief and even repeatedly vouched for him despite the controversies and criticisms. 

Duterte's spokesperson Harry Roque said: ""I think, from the overall demeanor of the President, wala naman po siyang nakikitang major lapse dahil ang pinag-uusapan po ay kontrata at hindi naman po abogado si Secretary Duque." 

The Palace official added the President has directed Duque to address the issue once and for all. Roque also went on saying that Pfizer's vaccines could not have been secured by the country in early 2021 anyway, noting that richer nations have ordered and paid for more doses.

New game plan

Amid the vaccine procurement mess, Locsin said earlier this week US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo promised to try his best to help Romualdez in getting back the Philippines into the Pfizer vaccine deal.

With a COVID-19 national tally of more than 460,000 total confirmed cases so far, the government hopes to begin vaccinating Filipinos against the virus beginning the first quarter of 2021.

The Duterte administration is currently planning to procure 25 million doses of the Chinese-made  Sinovac, despite questions on its efficacy and safety as its developers have yet to disclose their testing results and despite being the second priciest among the other vaccines being eyed. 

To recall, President Duterte earlier touted a vaccine as the "only solution" to the pandemic. Now that vaccines have already been developed, the world is waiting for it to become available to the public in high hopes that it will serve as the light at the end of the tunnel. 

But, as of this time, it is still important to follow minimum health standards to prevent one and others from getting infected. Everyone should continue washing their hands regularly. Thank you Secretary Duque for reminding us to do so and for teaching us how to do it properly.