A DAY after Christmas, on Dec. 26, 2020, President Rodrigo Duterte revealed in his weekly briefing that some soldiers have been vaccinated against Covid-19. That revelation, including his mention of Sinopharm, a Chinese state-owned corporation that controls over a thousand subsidiaries and six publicly listed companies (including China Traditional Chinese Medicine and Beijing Tiantan Biological Products), as supplier of the vaccine, left his alter egos scrambling for rationalizations of an obvious off-road approach to “self-preservation.”
Interior Secretary Eduardo Año said the soldiers referred to by the President were members of the Presidential Security Group (PSG). In a media interview, PSG chief Jesus Durante said the vaccinations began in the months of September and October 2020.
Where did the vaccine come from? Nobody appears to know. There are no records of it, says the Bureau of Customs. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the vaccines might have indeed been smuggled as they were unauthorized, but that it was “justified” since it was meant to protect the President.
Aside from the President himself saying that a vaccination happened, Philippine Army chief Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said in another media interview that the vaccination of soldiers followed the chain of command. His words: “Of course, our President is our commander-in-chief of the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines). I should say it’s from the chain of command of the Armed Forces.”
Durante disputed this, saying he was taking “full responsibility” over PSG’s use of an unapproved vaccine. He insisted that “no one convinced them to do it.”
Then last Monday night, Jan. 4, 2021, President Duterte said he was not aware of the PSG “initiative” to get vaccinated against Covid-19 at the time it happened. He also justified that initiative as “a matter of self-preservation,” adding, “[in] criminal law, that is the right to self-defense. The enemy? Covid.”
It is easy to understand why there are attempts to downplay the implications of what the President disclosed. Smuggling is illegal. Accepting gifts or tokens, which was how presidential spokesman Harry Roque Jr. described the way the contraband got into the hands of government, violates the law on ethical standards for government employees.
Even Duterte’s attempt to explain it away as an act of self-defense appears weak unless he knows something the rest of the world does not know — like a guarantee that this kind of self-defense indeed works. How sure are we that PSG did not put their health in greater danger?
That is precisely the point, in my layman’s understanding, of why use of unlicensed drugs is illegal. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Act of 2009 clearly defines this prohibition: the manufacture, importation, exportation, sale, offering for sale, distribution, transfer, non-consumer use, promotion, advertising, or sponsorship of any health product that is adulterated, unregistered or misbranded. A nonconsumer refers to a group or organization (such as a business or government) that consumes a good or service.
Those (natural or juridical persons) found guilty of violating the law suffer the penalty of imprisonment of up to 10 years, or a fine of up to P500,000, or both, depending on what the hearing court imposes. The penal provision adds: “health products found in violation of xxx this Act … may be seized and held in custody pending proceedings, without hearing or court order, when the director-general has reasonable cause to believe from facts found by him/her … that such health products may cause injury or prejudice to the consuming public.”
FDA Director General Enrique Domingo has been quoted as saying that the FDA has not issued any Covid-19 vaccine license yet. He has reason to believe that Sinopharm may cause harm to the consuming public. Duterte told him right in his face that this was the vaccine used on “his” soldiers. Will he proceed to snoop inside Malacañang and seize whatever stock or dosage are left unused? Will he initiate charges against PSG? He will not, of course, also on the ground of self-preservation.
But maybe the larger issue here is how come it took this long for the FDA to examine the reliability and safety of vaccines — any vaccine — for use in the country.
In the case of Sinopharm, the Department of Health (DoH) explained that the process for its licensing, starting with an Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) approval for its participation in trials, started in May 2020. There were actually two ways by which Sinopharm could get its vaccine registered, according to the Department of Science and Technology (DoST). Aside from the clinical trials, authorization from China’s regulatory agencies could be used as a basis for FDA approval. Either one of both ways did not appear to push through. It appeared that 1) the Philippine government could not grant Sinopharm’s request for the former to fund its clinical trials; and 2) DoST said Sinopharm never responded to its letter requesting the Chinese government’s authorization on its vaccine.
However, in a Rappler.com report (“In PH quest for vaccines, health officials battle rumors of negligence,” Jan. 1, 2021), Sofia Tomacruz wrote that “in October 2020, the Chinese firm informed the Philippines it was no longer interested in conducting trials, saying it opted to supply doses of the vaccine to the country.”
This one does not look good for agencies tasked with public health and safety regulations. That Sinopharm vaccines indeed found their way right into Malacañang says something about how useless the law is, and how superfluous the DoH and the FDA are.
It is possible, however, that the insidious attack was not meant to undermine any institution, but rather the persons representing them. Health Secretary Francisco Duque 3rd, who also exercises supervisory control over the FDA, is an oddity. Early in this pandemic, he had to parry accusations lobbed at him from all directions. He was perceived to be wanting in many things—from fully compensating frontliners for their heroic service in a timely manner, failure to address allegations of massive fraud at PhilHealth, to charges of corruption in procurement of Covid-19-related supplies and equipment.
He has been stripped of functions normally assigned to him, viz: procurement of test kits and vaccines; donations (moved to the Office of Civil Defense); role as Covid-19 response chief implementer given to Gen. Carlito Galvez; head of IATF is Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles, etc. He probably has nothing left to do except go around public places with a one-meter stick in hand, and poke people with it to remind them of the need for proper physical distancing.
But by far this Sinopharm issue should finally clinch it for him to think really hard on where he stands in the grand scheme of things. Sinopharm’s entry without an ID makes the security guard in Duque useless. It is yet one of the many signs that show how he has sunk this deeply into insignificance.