DILG chief confirms local vaccinations
MANILA, Philippines — It is not unlawful to be inoculated with an unauthorized COVID-19 vaccine, Malacañang said on Monday after the home affairs secretary and the Army chief confirmed that Cabinet members and security forces have received a jab for the new coronavirus that had yet to be authorized for use in the Philippines.
What is illegal is distributing the shot commercially without regulatory approval, the Palace said.
Word had been going around for weeks that government officials, lawmakers and soldiers had been vaccinated for COVID-19, but the Department of Health (DOH) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had been denying it, insisting that the government had not approved any vaccine for the new coronavirus disease.
But President Rodrigo Duterte disclosed during a meeting with health experts on Saturday that many Filipinos, including troops from the Armed Forces of the Philippines, had been given the vaccine developed by the Chinese pharmaceutical company Sinopharm.
‘Not yet policy’
“Almost all soldiers have been vaccinated. I have to be frank, I have to tell the truth. Many people have been vaccinated, and I have not heard of vaccination for a select few. But not all soldiers. It’s because it’s not yet policy,” Mr. Duterte said.
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said he had no information about Duterte’s claim, while Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said it was up to the President to name his sources.
The FDA stood firm on its claim that it had not cleared any candidate COVID-19 vaccine.
On Monday, however, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año confirmed in a radio interview that some Cabinet officials and troops from the Presidential Security Group (PSG) had been vaccinated against COVID-19.
“I know some members of the Cabinet and the PSG had already received the COVID-19 vaccine,” Año said, adding he did not know whether the President had been vaccinated, too.
The head of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) did not name the vaccine used, but said it was administered under an emergency use authorization (EUA).
“Those vaccines have what we call EUA, so even if they are not yet approved, we can use them on our health workers and front-liners during a pandemic,” he said.
In a separate radio interview, Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, the Army chief, confirmed inoculations in the military.
“I know of some [soldiers], but I could just not disclose the unit. I know personally that there were some administered the vaccine in the ranks of the [military],” Sobejana said.
He did not say what vaccine had been given to the troops.
President not vaccinated
Brig. Gen. Jesus Durante, the PSG commander, also confirmed that troops from the presidential guard had been vaccinated.
“The PSG is the primary unit of the [military] that is mandated to protect the nation’s highest leader. With the current pandemic, [the] PSG needs to ensure that they are not themselves [a] threat to the President’s health and safety. As such the PSG administered COVID-19 vaccine to its personnel,” Durante said in a statement.
He did not say what vaccine was used, but said that although using the shot was “a risk” it was part of the PSG’s “mission to protect the President.”
Duterte had not been given the vaccine, Durante said. “The President is still awaiting the perfect or appropriate vaccine,” he added.
Roque said it was the Sinopharm vaccine and that its use was purely voluntary on the part of the soldiers who had received the shot.
He said he did not know the donor and the circumstances behind the donation.
“The law does not prohibit the use of an unregistered vaccine. What is prohibited is their distribution and sale. This was administered to soldiers who had agreed to it,” Roque told a news briefing.
“Let us accept that it is important that our soldiers, those who watch over our security, are safe from COVID so that they could fulfill their duty,” Roque said.
The decision to get the Sinopharm vaccine, he said, must have been made by the soldiers or by their commanders.
“I don’t know if it’s government-sanctioned. It’s a personal decision. The decision to be vaccinated or not is always a personal decision,” he said.
Bayan Muna Rep. Ferdinand Gaite disagreed with Roque on the legality of using unregistered vaccines.
“[It] is against Republic Act No. 9711, which requires the approval of the FDA. Even if it is a donation, the approval of the FDA is still needed before using it,” Gaite said.
Roque explained that the vaccine was probably brought into the country in “very small quantities,” as the importation of commercial quantities would need a license.
“What is important is that it has an [emergency use authority] from China. What’s important is this was not officially imported. What’s important is this was not marketed and distributed. It was given and received and administered,” he said.
Roque said he did not think the President had been vaccinated, but repeated that Mr. Duterte had been asking whether he could be given the Pfizer vaccine after being given another brand earlier.
He did not confirm the information that Cabinet members had been vaccinated. He himself denied earlier this month that he had been inoculated with the Sinopharm vaccine.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu, Agriculture Secretary William Dar, Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi and Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez all said they had not been vaccinated.
“A big NO,” Guevarra said in a text message to the Inquirer.
Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III denied he was among the Cabinet members who had received the Sinopharm vaccine.
“Not me,” said Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III, who is in charge of looking for funds to buy COVID-19 vaccines.
Asked whether they had been vaccinated, Acting Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Karl Kendrick Chua and Presidential Adviser on Flagship Programs and Projects Vivencio Dizon both replied, “Nope.”
Vice President Leni Robredo has not been vaccinated, her spokesperson Barry Gutierrez said. Neither has she received any offer to be vaccinated, he added.
The FDA vowed to go after distributors of “illegal and unregistered” COVID-19 vaccines.
FDA Director General Eric Domingo said in a television interview that getting inoculated with an unauthorized vaccine was a “personal choice.”
“There’s nothing we can do about it, it’s a personal choice. But it is illegal to import an unregistered drug, to distribute it, and for a doctor or a medical practitioner or any health [worker] to administer unlicensed drugs in the country,” Domingo said. “So if we do catch any of them, we will [file] cases against them.”
On Monday, the DOH reported 766 additional coronavirus infections, bringing the overall number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country to 470,650.
The DOH said 104 more patients had recovered, raising the total number of COVID-19 survivors to 438,780. But the death toll rose to 9,124 with the deaths of 15 more patients.
The deaths and recoveries left the country with 22,476 active cases, of which 80 percent were mild, 10.4 percent asymptomatic, 0.44 percent moderate, 3.2 percent severe, and 6 percent critical.
—With reports from Jeannette I. Andrade, Katrina Hallare, Dona Z. Pazzibugan, Ben O. de Vera, Krixia Subingsubing and Nestor Corrales