President Duterte has vowed to protect his security team from a vaccine probe – Dondi Tawatao/Reuters
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has blocked attempts by the country’s Senate to probe how his security team was inoculated with an unauthorised Covid-19 vaccine, warning legislators of a “crisis” if they dig deeper into the matter.
On Monday, Mr Duterte ordered Brigadier General Jesus Durante, the head of the presidential security group (PSG), to ignore a legislative summons by parliamentarians demanding an explanation over the covert vaccination operation.
“I am prepared to defend my soldiers. I won’t allow them to be brutalised in hearings,” the president said in a televised briefing late on Monday evening. On Tuesday, the armed forces said they would call off their own fact-finding mission over the issue.
According to local media reports, Mr Duterte had already confirmed over the weekend that people in the Philippines had received vaccines from China’s Sinopharm.
The Senate plans to conduct an inquiry into the government’s vaccination plan next week amid accusations that unapproved vaccines have been used illegally.
The Philippines Food and Drug Administration has not approved a Covid-19 vaccine – making the importation, distribution and sale of a Covid-19 vaccine illegal – and it has warned of potential dangers from using vaccines it has not cleared.
However, Harry Roque, Mr Duterte’s spokesman, said the military detail broke no laws.
Last week General Durante said a handful of unit members used the vaccine “in good faith” because they could not afford to wait for regulatory approval, adding the president was only informed afterwards. He did not name the vaccine used or say how it was obtained.
But the controversy was fuelled earlier on Monday when Francisco Duque, the health secretary, said his agency would not only investigate how unauthorised vaccines were given to the security team but reportedly also to thousands of Chinese workers in the Southeast Asian country.
The Food and Drug Administration was working with government investigators and customs officials to probe the illegal entry and use of the unregistered vaccines, Mr Duque said at a televised briefing.
His announcement came after the revelation by Teresita Ang-See, a prominent Chinese-Filipino civic leader, that some 100,000 Chinese workers based in the Philippines – mostly offshore gaming operators – were inoculated with a Covid-19 vaccine in December.
“We brought it to the attention of authorities because, for me, it’s OK that they get vaccinated, because we do not have much control with them,” Ms Ang-See said during an online forum, reported the Philippine Inquirer.
“The vaccines given to them were legitimate, legitimate sources. It came from an official channel so I think it’s good,” Ms Ang See argued. “This should not have been blown out of proportion if this were not kept secret, because we … all understand why it is needed.”
The unauthorised use of vaccines has added to global fears of emerging black markets for the drugs. Philippine critics have raised concerns that the clandestine rollout could hamper oversight of possible side effects.
Vaccination programmes are particularly sensitive in the Philippines after a recent controversy over a hasty immunisation scheme to administer a new dengue drug led to its withdrawal and the undermining of public trust.
Officially, the Philippines, which has the second-highest number of Covid-19 infections in Southeast Asia, aims to secure at least 80 million vaccines from pharmaceuticals including AstraZeneca Plc., Novavax Inc. and Pfizer Inc., with deals expected this month and shipments by the second quarter.