By Vann Marlo M. Villegas, Reporter

PRIVATE companies still can’t import coronavirus vaccines on their own until regulators approve these for commercial use, according to the presidential palace.

“The importation would still be through tripartite agreements,” presidential spokesman Herminio L. Roque, Jr. told an online news briefing on Tuesday.

President Rodrigo R. Duterte on Monday night said he would allow the private sector to import coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) vaccines at will to boost the government’s vaccination drive.

“I have ordered Secretary Carlito Galvez to sign any and all documents that would allow the private sector to import at will,” he said in a televised speech. “Whatever amount they want,” he said in Filipino.

The private sector would be allowed to buy vaccines immediately because state vaccine supply had been limited amid a “ruckus” in the global vaccine trade, Mr. Duterte said.

The government had prevented companies from importing coronavirus vaccines unless it was in coordination with the Health department.

But Mr. Roque said companies must import vaccines under a deal with the government and drug makers because the state would shoulder the liability in case people get sick from the vaccines.

Mr. Galvez, the country’s vaccine czar, said Mr. Duterte’s order was to fast-track the order process. “That was his directive, that there should not be any delay so the government won’t be perceived as controlling the procurement,” he told the same briefing in Filipino.

The local Food and Drug Administration had only approved coronavirus vaccines for emergency use.

Mr. Duterte in February signed into law the COVID-19 Vaccination Program Act, which created a P500-million indemnification fund for patients.

Under the law, local government units and companies may buy vaccines through an agreement with the Department of Health (DoH), the National Task Force Against COVID-19 and the vaccine maker.

Meanwhile, senators praised Mr. Duterte for his order to allow the private sector to buy vaccines on their own.

In a statement, Senator Juan Miguel F. Zubiri said private companies could boost the government’s vaccination program.

He said he had introduced an amendment in the second stimulus law that allows private companies to conduct research, develop, manufacture and buy COVID-19 vaccines from registered pharmaceutical companies.

“It should pave the way for more acquisitions by the private sector,” Senator Juan Edgardo M. Angara said in a statement.

Senator Risa N. Hontiveros-Baraquel said she welcomes Mr. Duterte’s order but people should have equal access to coronavirus vaccines.

The Management Association of the Philippines also lauded the President’s order. “We hope the legal issues surrounding this can be addressed immediately,” it said in an e-mailed statement.

The group also asked the government not to extend the strict lockdown in Manila, the capital and nearby cities and provinces after April 4 because “large businesses are hurting and many smaller ones are on the verge of closing or have closed.”

The Department of Health (DoH) reported 9,296 coronavirus infections on Tuesday,  bringing the total to 741,181.

Tuesday’s tally was lower than Monday’s 10,016 cases, the highest daily tally since the pandemic started last year. The death toll rose by five to 13,191, while recoveries increased by 103 to 603,310, it said in a bulletin.

There were 124,680 active cases, 96% of which were mild, 2.3% did not show symptoms, 0.6% were critical, 0.7% were severe and 0.39% were moderate.

The Health department said nine duplicates had been removed from the tally, while one recovered case was reclassified as death. Nine laboratories failed to submit data on March 29.

About 9.5 million Filipinos have been tested for the coronavirus as of March 28, according to DoH’s tracker website.

The coronavirus has sickened about 128.3 million and killed 2.8 million people worldwide, according to the Worldometers website, citing various sources including data from the World Health Organization.

About 103.5 million people have recovered, it said.

Meanwhile, the Budget department said it had authorized the Treasury bureau to release P22.9 billion in cash that Mr. Duterte approved for local governments in the National Capital Region (NCR), Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna and Rizal or the so-called NCR Plus.

The fund would help 80% of the population of NCR Plus belonging to poor households, the agency said in an e-mailed statement. Each person will get P1,000 provided the aid does not exceed P4,000 per family.

Local governments will decide whether to distribute the aid in cash or kind, it added.

Mr. Duterte approved the subsidy after he placed Metro Manila and nearby provinces under a week-long strict lockdown until April 4 amid a fresh surge in infections.

Metro Manila and the provinces of Bulacan, Rizal, Laguna and Cavite were placed under a week-long enhanced community quarantine this week to ease pressure on dwindling hospital beds amid a spike in daily cases.

Active coronavirus cases in the Philippines may almost quadruple to 430,000 by the end of April if stricter quarantine measures were not imposed, the DoH said on Monday.

Metro Manila and the provinces of Bulacan, Cavite and Rizal were at “critical risk” given the swift rise in infections, while Laguna is at high risk, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario S. Vergeire said.