MANILA (UPDATE) - Health Secretary Francisco Duque III on Friday confirmed that the Department of Health (DOH) received P600-million worth of RT-PCR test kits that were about to expire in 6 months, even if the original request of the agency was to acquire kits with a 12 to 24-month shelf life.
The Department of Budget and Management's Procurement Service (PS-DBM) approved the items from Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp, according to documents discussed during a Senate Blue Ribbon Committee hearing.
"During the inspection of these items, it was discussed with the DOH," former PS-DBM inspector Mervin Tanquintic told senators when asked why the agency approved the procurement even if it did not comply with original DOH specifications.
"It was determined that the kits would be consumed prior to the expiration date," he said.
Duque backed the former inspector's claim, saying the agency was in a rush to get more RT-PCR test kits at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic last year.
"At that time kasi very acute ang [we had a very acute] need for the testing kits," he said.
"Alam namin na mauubos din ito [we knew these would be used up] so it's much better to get them, to use them in effect to know who among the people are infected," he said.
But Sen. Francis Pangilinan noted that the PS-DBM should have gotten a huge discount for buying the nearly expired test kits in bulk.
"Importante ito kasi kapag maaga na ang expiry date dapat mas mura... kapag malapit na ang expiry, ang bentahan niyan dapat mas mababa," he said.
(It's important because when a product is near expiry, it should be cheaper so it should be sold at a lower price.)
"Overpriced na, hindi pa tama ang specs," he said.
(Not only was it overpriced, it did not comply with specs.)
This debunked the Commission on Audit's earlier observation that there was no overpricing in pandemic supplies acquired by the PS-DBM using P42-billion in DOH funds, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said.
"What was bought was bought in bulk," he said.
"The records will show that 1 week after purchases were made at P27 per piece (of face mask), suddenly there was available P13 per piece," he said.
"All these things are something that is really out of the normal," he said.
The 2 senators also dismissed Duque's claim that it might have been difficult to acquire RT-PCR test kits last year, noting that Pharmally has been delivering items to the PS-DBM within 24 hours, even before the agency could issue official purchase orders.
"So what tightness of supply are we talking about? Something which is not usual in the ordinary course happened," Drilon said.
'NOT NEAR EXPIRY'
In a statement on Saturday, the DOH said they did not buy nearly-expired RT-PCR test kits because their standard shelf life by then was around 6 months.
They also clarified that the deliveries were done in a staggered basis, and was also dependent on the country's demand, with the short shelf life and "limitations" already considered.
"The test kits used to detect the virus were only developed in the early months of 2020. Back then, real-time RT-PCR test kits that were available in the market had a shelf life of only 6 months," the statement read.
Health Assistant Secretary Charade Mercado-Grande, meanwhile, said the RT-PCR test kits with a 6-month shelf life were "not near expiry."
"That was the standard shelf life of those novel diagnostic test kits at the time. Additionally, test kits are fast-moving stocks that have to be used immediately since we are in a pandemic," Grande said.
Pangilinan earlier blamed Pharmally for delays in COVID-19 testing last year after the company delivered extraction kits at a later date, rendering the test kits useless for several weeks.
The Senate Blue Ribbon Committee will resume its hearing on September 21 when the panel receives more documents from PS-DBM and Pharmally.