Senate, Reps summon minister of health over controversial N10bn released for local production of COVID-19

• Hints on supplementary budget for procurement of COVID-19 vaccine

The joint Senate and House of Representatives Committees on Health on Monday flagged off an investigation into the controversies trailing the purpose of the total sum of N10 billion released recently by Federal Government to Ministry of Health for local production of COVID-19 vaccines in the country.

Senate Committee on Primary Healthcare and Communicable Diseases, Senator Chukwuka Utazi, who expressed the concern in Abuja, during an emergency meeting on the production of vaccines in the country, alleged that the Minister of Health, Dr Osagie Ehanire misinformed Nigerians on the purpose of the N10 billion released which was for COVID-19 vaccine.

The joint Committees’ invitation letter dated January 19, 2021, requested details of the budgetary provision or otherwise for the vaccine production, details of the execution of the programme including where and how the vaccine will be produced and any related memorandum of understanding signed by the ministry either locally or internationally and any information that may be necessary.

Senator Utazi alleged that the sum of N10 billion was appropriated in the amended 2020 Appropriation Act to accommodate COVID-19 programmes for local manufacturing of vaccine (Biovaccine), while the minister of health during the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19 briefing announced that the fund released was for local production of COVID-19 vaccine.

While reiterating the resolve of the joint committees to ensure effectively monitor the vaccine production, Senator Utazi said: “We have been following issues on the PTF announcement that N10 billion was released to the ministry of health for the production of vaccines in the country.

“We feel that as the committees that are concerned and part of oversight functions in the ministry of health, we have to be properly informed so that we can be properly guided in our decisions and our actions as far as these Committees are concerned.”

He also requested for update on the proposed supplementary budget for the funding of local production of vaccines as agreed during the review of the 2020 Appropriation Act, during which approval was given for the implementation of various intervention programmes to curtail COVID-19 pandemic across the country.

Senator Utazi said: “Remember the last time when we did the review of the 2020 budget, we looked at all the issues and we worked on all those things.

“Last year we were looking forward that this will subside and that Covid-19 will not linger more than necessary. But as at today, the experiences we are having here have shown that instead of subsiding, it’s rising of late.

“So, we are still back to square one. We are of the opinion that the Budget Office should think about further releases. Thank God that the budget implementation has been extended by the ministry of finance and the National Assembly has looked at that request instead of just returning the resources back again and then with things not being done.

“So we are saying although 50% has been released, it should be followed second 50% release so that all the issues that are concerned with putting infrastructure on the ground to ensure that we can take good care of our people across the country would be concluded.”

He specifically lamented over the prevailing situation at the Federal Medical Centre, Abakaliki last Friday with the view to have first-hand information on the health care programme.

“I went to the reception at the isolation centre section and what I saw there didn’t go done well with me, the way they put barricades to separate those on isolation and the main hospital’s admission centre there, didn’t go down well.

“All these things we are saying is a pointer that there is need to ensure all our hospitals that are housing these infrastructures including molecular centres are concluded for the good of this country,” he urged.

• Finance Minister confirms release of N10bn to Ministry of Health

In her response, the Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning affirmed that “Federal Ministry of Budget, Finance and National Planning has reviewed the issues raised by the joint committees and stated that N10 billion was appropriated in the 2020 Appropriation Act repealed and amended, under Covid-19 Intervention programme for the Federal Ministry of Health.

“That the joint committees on health is invited to note that N10 billion has been released to the Federal Ministry of Health under the budgetary votes. We have also attached evidence of what was released.

“Finally on the details of where and how the vaccines will be produced as well as other issues raised in the joint committees’ letter, would be best answered by the Federal Ministry of Health,” he stated.

• Most Nigerians are not willing to take vaccines – Akabueze

The minister who was represented by the Director-General of Budget Office of the Federation, Mr Ben Akabueze added that the supplementary budget is still a matter of discussion.

While observing that most of the citizens already spoken to have expressed unwillingness to take the vaccines, she stressed the urgent need to ensure adequate employment of medical doctors and other medical personnel at the subnational level.

On the extension of implementation of the capital component of the 2020 Appropriation Act, the minister confirmed that: “The extension of the implementation of the 2020 capital budget to 31st March will not entail any further releases.

“It’s an extension to enable MDAs to utilise the funds that have been released to them which was provide based on extant financial regulations which could have been returned to the treasury on the 31st of December, 2020.

“So there will be no further release under the 2020 capital budget but as I said, for health that should not be a problem.”

With respect to the discussion on the possible supplementary budget for Covid-19 vaccine procurement, the minister disclosed that: “That’s still a work in progress. We are discussing the modalities for that because there’s a lot that this entails. It’s one thing to procure vaccines, it’s another thing for people to be willing to take the vaccines and right now I’m not sure that we are doing well in terms of the campaign and sensitisation for people.

“I don’t know what you hear. Most of the people our talk to, they don’t appear to be willing to take this vaccine. So it’s one of the issues we need to address as we make plans to procure the vaccine,” he informed the lawmakers.

In his intervention, Chairman, Senate Committee on Health, Senator Ibrahim Oloriegbe alleged that the “news that was put out by the ministry of health is not in line with what Akabueze stated here. What the minister said was that the Federal Ministry of Finance has released N10 billion to them to produce Covid-19 vaccine in Nigeria.

“But what we put there was that this was a counterpart funding, that N10 billion should have a memorandum of understanding which is to serve as the contribution of the Federal Government to the vaccine production arrangement supported by Mayer & Baker.

“And I do recall vividly, during the budget consideration, we did ask the minister to submit to us all the relevant MoUs and other documents. But they’ve not submitted them to us,” he noted.

While noting that the fund was approved for already signed agreement for general vaccines production, Senator Oloriegbe maintained that the N10 billion approved was not for the production of COVID-19 vaccine as alluded to by the minister.

In his intervention, Hon. Tanko Sununu noted that the minister misinformed Nigerians during the briefing on the purpose of the fund released.

While acknowledging that Nigeria requires series of vaccines in the health sector including polio, one of the House members who spoke at the investigative hearing, underscored the need to build local capacity and promote synergy with other stakeholders across the continent.

On his part, Senator Ibrahim Oloriegbe underscored the need for the immediate release of 100% of funds for molecular lab, ICU and isolation centres, which he noted may become abandoned projects if all the funds are not released.

He noted that the committee will go round all the 52 centres, in addition to the ongoing audit exercise being carried out by the office of the Auditor General of the Federation (oAuGF).

He insisted that any vaccines to be brought into Nigeria must be safe and effective while putting the safety of the citizens into consideration.

Senator Oloriegbe who affirmed that the release of N1 billion to each of the 36 State Governments was part of efforts by the Federal Government to support health sector, yet most of them have failed to put in required manpower and funding.

The committees also assured Nigerians that any vaccines that would be procured will meet international standards and meet their expectations, just as they urged National Orientation Agency, NAFDAC to step us awareness on the importance of the vaccines.

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