NBI to probe unlawful entry, use of Sinopharm vaccine
MANILA, Philippines — Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra on Wednesday said he had ordered an investigation into the use of a locally unregistered vaccine to inoculate presidential guards for COVID-19 as it might have violated several laws, contrary to administration officials’ claims that it was not unlawful.
Guevarra said he had directed the National Bureau of Investigation to look into the use of the vaccine developed by the Chinese pharmaceutical company Sinopharm and how it was brought into the Philippines.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has said that it has not approved any candidate vaccine for COVID-19 and that the use of any unregistered vaccine is illegal.
Guevarra said his order to NBI Director Eric Distor was a “general instruction” and was not aimed at the inoculation of troops from the Presidential Security Group (PSG), which had been confirmed by administration officials.
“[This is] not zeroing in on the PSG or on any particular incident of unauthorized vaccination,” he said.
But asked if the Department of Justice (DOJ) will move for the indictment of government officials and other people behind the use of the unauthorized vaccine on President Duterte’s bodyguards, Guevarra said: “If the NBI finds sufficient factual basis to file a complaint, the DOJ will conduct a preliminary investigation and file a case in court if probable cause has been established.”
There had been talk in recent weeks of government officials getting vaccinated for COVID-19, but the FDA had been firm that it had not approved any candidate vaccine for the new coronavirus disease.
But President Duterte disclosed the PSG vaccinations during a meeting with health experts in Malacañang last Saturday. He identified the vaccine used as the one developed by Sinopharm, but the FDA said it had not registered it. (See related story in World, Page B3.)
Interior Secretary Eduardo Año confirmed the vaccinations on Monday, saying Cabinet officials were inoculated, too. He did not name the vaccine or its source.
On Tuesday, Año revised his statement and said only one Cabinet member had been vaccinated, though he did not name the official. He again did not identify the vaccine, but said it had emergency use authorization from its country of origin.
FDA Director General Eric Domingo said on Tuesday that the agency would investigate how the vaccinations happened, while Assistant Customs Commissioner Vincent Philip Maronilla said an investigation would be launched to determine how supplies of the vaccine were brought into the country.
PSG must explain
On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the PSG should explain the inoculation of its troops with the unauthorized COVID-19 vaccine, as it was a violation of FDA rules.
Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of Rizal Day celebrations at Luneta in Manila, Lorenzana admitted that he had not been informed about the vaccination of the presidential guards.
He said he had heard talk of PSG troops getting vaccinated but he did not inquire into it or sought to learn who authorized it.
“It’s just now that the facts are coming out that there is no authorized vaccine here yet. So I don’t know how it will be resolved,” he said.
“[The PSG] should explain why they did it, because they violated FDA rules,” Lorenzana said.
The PSG is overseen by the Armed Forces of the Philippines, but its operations and activities fall within the purview of the Office of the President.
Lorenzana gave assurance that other military units would abide by FDA rules in getting vaccinated for COVID-19.
He also said medical front-liners would get priority when the government got COVID-19 vaccines. Only vaccines approved by the FDA would be used, he added.
Brig. Gen. Jesus Durante III, the PSG commander, confirmed the vaccinations on Monday, but did not name the vaccine and its source. He said the presidential guards took the “risk” because they themselves should not be a threat to the President’s health.
‘We vaccinated ourselves’
In a television interview on Wednesday, Durante said the PSG did not ask for the President’s permission before allowing its troops to be vaccinated.
He said getting the shots was the PSG’s own initiative based on its own research.
“We’ve done our research. For now, we’ve found the appropriate vaccine for us, which I could say is a traditional vaccine. So we took the risk,” Durante said.
He said the troops took the first dose in September and the second in October.
Durante did not name the vaccine. Neither did he name its source. He said the presidential guards were vaccinated without help from medical professionals.
“We vaccinated ourselves. It’s so easy,” Durante said.
“Tell that to the Marines,” Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said.
“They have twisted themselves into knots trying to explain. They are lying through their teeth in a bid to protect those who are principally involved in the illegal shipment of the unauthorized vaccines to the country,” Drilon, a former secretary of justice, said in a statement.
He said there was no way the vaccine could have entered the country without clearance from the Bureau of Customs.
‘The truth will come out’
“They cannot hide the truth. The truth will come out and we will find their fingerprints all over it. Those who caused the illegal importation and administration of the unauthorized vaccine must be held responsible. Otherwise, the environment of impunity is enhanced,” Drilon said.
In a handwritten statement issued from Camp Crame, detained Sen. Leila de Lima slammed presidential spokesperson Harry Roque’s defense that the vaccines were “tokens of small value.”
“They are coveted . . . contrabands smuggled into our country . . . Duterte’s acceptance makes him party to [the] unlawful activities,” De Lima, also a former justice secretary, said.
Iloilo Rep. Janette Garin, a former secretary of health, warned that any COVID-19 vaccine not approved by the FDA is “dangerous.”
“Whether these vaccines were donated or purchased, [they] should be approved by [the] FDA. Vaccines and medicines for use, even in clinical trials, also need FDA clearance. Even donations need FDA clearance,” Garin said in a statement.
“Vaccines that are not tested and smuggled into the country are dangerous,” she said.
—Reports from Marlon Ramos, Jeannette I. Andrade, Krissy Aguillar, Katrina Hallare, DJ Yap, Melvin Gascon, Jodee A. Agoncillo and Nestor Corrales
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