Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh on his way to the Senate yesterday.

The Government will engage the private sector in its search for viable vaccines outside the COVAX facility for Trinidad and Tobago.

The decision comes after a brief blow-up between the State and conglomerate ANSA McAL over a misunderstanding on whether the Government could fund the US$8.4 million purchase of 351,000 vaccines from Pfizer or needed ANSA McAL to step in to make the purchase.

While ANSA McAL Group CEO Anthony N Sabga III believed the Government had requested his company’s intervention as the State was unable to amass the US$8.4m at short notice, both Deyalsingh and Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley denied the State needed any financial assistance to buy vaccines.

Yesterday, however, Deyalsingh said Government had decided to work with not only ANSA McAL but the Supermarket Association of T&T on securing vaccines for the country.

“I am pleased to say that Mr Anthony Sabga III of ANSA and Mr Rajiv Diptee of SATT (Supermarket Association of T&T) and myself have decided to be forward-looking. In this vein, we will be working together to procure safe WHO-approved vaccines for T&T if available to the private sector. We assure the public that if and when there is a viable outcome, we will alert the public,” Deyalsingh said.

In a two-page internal statement to employees on Monday, Sabga had noted that the conglomerate also negotiated the purchase of one million vaccines. While Sabga did not state who the manufacturer was, Deyalsingh said ANSA McAL had negotiated the purchase from the Indian-based manufacturer Serum Institute of India (SII), which manufactures the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine now being used globally. The Government also wrote to that company through Indian High Commissioner Arun Kumar Sahu back in February but was told the manufacturer was not taking any more orders as it was overwhelmed by orders. The same vaccine, under the Covishield banner, has been donated by India to several countries as part of its “vaccine Maitri” drive.

Hours before this resolution between the private sector and the Government though, there seemed to be contradictions in the recollection of what occurred in a February 17 meeting by the parties.

On Monday, just after Sabga’s statement hit the media, Rowley dismissed the idea that the State needed funding from ANSA McAL.

“Just remember when you hear that rubbish that the Central Bank is the state banker and if the Government cannot find USD to fund vaccines in a pandemic then the Cabinet will know that and the country will know that,” he said in response to questions from Guardian Media.

In Senate yesterday, Deyalsingh also said the ministry did not seek financial assistance from the conglomerate, after UNC Senator Wade Mark asked about the contradictory statements given by the Government and ANSA McAL over the purchase of the 351,000 vaccines.

But Deyalsingh said the Government did have the money to pay for the vaccines.

“This offer came out of a meeting requested and arranged by the Ministry of Health because people were reaching out to me personally,” he said.

“We facilitated the meeting, they asked us what our needs were and they were willing to help. They were willing to help with everything from storage of vaccines, to transport, to the provision of people, to the provision of vehicles.”

Deyalsingh read into the Hansard a February 19 letter from ANSA Group CEO Anthony Sabga III.

Deyalsingh quoted what he said were “two relevant paragraphs.”

“However, in order to meet our commitment, we kindly request that GORTT ensure that an adequate supply of US currency is made available to ANSA Merchant Bank to enable us to purchase these doses in a timely manner. That answers the US currency part,” he read.

“Further, we also request that for all, not only ANSA, but for all private sector companies such as ourselves which purchase vaccines for the exclusive use by GORTT in vaccinating the public, that a contribution by 100 per cent be fully credited against taxes payable for the year 2021.

“There is no confusion, we are perfectly clear,” Deyalsingh added.

Another hiccup between the two groups was the provision of tax concessions for any private company that assisted with the procurement of vaccines that are donated to the State for vaccinations of citizens.

This could amount to a roughly $50 million tax break, according to Supermarket Association of T&T head Rajiv Diptee said in a brief telephone interview yesterday.

Sabga’s statement also revealed that the group later learned that Deyalsingh had made the same request to the energy companies and by February 24, the conglomerate renewed its offer to assist “if energy companies could not raise the full amount.”

“On March 12, 2021, I received a letter dated February 26, 2021, from Minister Deyalsingh that would make all of you proud,” Sabga said in his statement to employees.

Sabga then quoted a letter from Deyalsingh which stated that the Government “applauded” the company’s commitment to corporate social responsibility and also acknowledged ANSA McAL’s “selfless partnership and unwavering commitment to country.”

However, Deyalsingh yesterday said that that thank you was sent to the entire private sector and was in no way related to the acquisition of vaccines.

In a telephone interview on Monday, Deyalsingh said he never met with ANSA McAL one-on-one but had a roundtable with several companies, including the energy sector.

“At no time did I, as Minister of Health, meet with ANSA McAL on Wednesday,” Deyalsingh said.

“What there was, was a roundtable meeting with the private sector, energy chambers, banking and other private sectors on the afternoon of Wednesday, chaired by Dr Stewart Smith, because all private sector companies were reaching out to us to assist.

“ANSA McAL was a part but at no time did I meet with them, nor did I at any time make a direct request of ANSA McAL on vaccines.” He added, “There was a general meeting with the private sector. Those are the facts.”

When asked about ANSA McAL willingly volunteering US8.4 million to buy the vaccines, Deyalsingh said he “did not know about that”.

“I did not approach ANSA McAL,” he said.

Deyalsingh said the letter that ANSA quoted as having been received on March 12 was not sent to ANSA alone but to the private sector for their efforts in 2020.

“It was a general letter thanking all companies that contributed towards things last year. It had nothing to do with the roundtable meeting. It was a letter I sent to all private sector companies who assisted with the COVID response in 2020, it was not unique to ANSA McAL,” he said.

Regarding the one million secured vaccines by the conglomerate, Deyalsingh said he had asked ANSA McAL to produce some details of that deal.

“I have asked them to provide details of who is the agent. They can’t supply that as yet,” Deyalsingh said.

Roundtable attendess mum on details of meeting

Energy Chamber of T&T CEO Dax Driver yesterday confirmed that he attended the February 17 roundtable meeting with the Ministry of Health, chaired by Dr Stewart Smith, alongside other top business leaders.

In a brief telephone interview, Driver said he would not comment on what happened in that meeting or the subsequent contention between ANSA McAL and the Government. He also refused to reveal any of the other business leaders who attended the meeting.

Driver did say that the Minister of Health was not at that meeting that he attended.

Fellow business leader and T&T Chamber of Industry and Commerce head Gabriel Faria confirmed that he attended the same meeting but said it was unclear what the issue was between the State and conglomerate ANSA McAL.

Faria also said he could not recall receiving or having sight of the thank you letter that the Ministry of Health referred to and also referenced in Sabga’s statement.

“As a country today, we need to focus on working collaboratively to ensure that we have a comprehensive vaccination campaign to save lives and livelihoods. The private sector is ready to support the Government in any way it can,” Faria said.

Supermarket Association of T&T head Rajiv Diptee yesterday said he also did not receive any thank you letter from the ministry.

“It would have been nice to get one,” Diptee added.

However, Diptee said he was in support of ANSA McAL in this matter.

At the February 17 roundtable with key business leaders, the Ministry of Health detailed its four avenues for vaccine supply, which included the COVAX facility, the African Unions/Medicine Council, the CARICOM initiative with India and direct bilateral talks with five manufacturers.

According to that presentation, those five manufacturers are Pfizer, Moderna, Astra Zeneca, Sinopharm and Johnson and Johnson. The ministry said talks with Pfizer began in December 2020 and there is a confidentiality agreement in place. Talks with Moderna and AstraZeneca began in October 2020. There is no timeline ascribed to Sinopharm, the China-made vaccine which is yet to receive World Health Organisation (WHO) approval. There is also no timeline for the J&J single jab vaccine but discussions were slated to begin once emergency use was granted. Johnson & Johnson received that emergency use clearance on February 27.

Under the Caricom request to India heading, the Ministry of Health stated that it requested 250,000 Covishield vaccines, which is the vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India. The African Union initiative allocated T&T some 226,000 vaccines to be determined by CARPHA.

With regards to the COVAX facility, the ministry told the business leaders that the State paid $10 million to COVAX on September 29 “as a downpayment”. That presentation also stated that the first delivery of 100,000 and 117,000 and 120,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccine was expected by March 2021. However, the Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO) updated that delivery date to the first week in April and reduced the doses to separate tranches of 33,600 in the first instance and 72,000 to follow.