VICE President Leni Robredo yesterday pressed Malacañang not to hide the truth behind the use of smuggled COVID-19 vaccines on members of the Presidential Security Group (PSG), saying the controversy is the last thing the government needs now that people are waiting to be vaccinated against the coronavirus disease.
“Hopefully, there will be no attempt to deceive the people. Hopefully, they will be very transparent because we don’t want the public to doubt (the need to be vaccinated),” she said in Filipino in her weekly radio program on RMN. “This is what we’re asking for: transparency. We hope there will be no cover-up since that’s the prevailing belief right now.”
The vaccine developed by Chinese company Sinopharm was reportedly the one used to inoculate PSG members even if no vaccine has yet been given regulatory approval in the Philippines.
Robredo said the Executive has to convincingly answer lingering questions on the alleged illegal vaccination of PSG members because people no longer believe some of its claims.
She said the issue has to be investigated because letting it pass would encourage those in government to commit illegal acts without fear of sanctions.
“We hope for transparency and for them to just own up to their mistake. The should be no cover-up because it will only take our attention away from more more important things,” said the Vice President.
The Vice President said the “most basic” question that the Palace has to answer is how the vaccine got into the country because if government is claiming it was a donation, the donor should be identified.
She said receiving donations entail some requirements. She also noted the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has said t has not issued any emergency authorization to allow the use of the Chinese vaccine.
Robredo said even the Bureau of Customs and the Department of Health could not say how the vaccines entered the country.
She pointed out that PSG chief Brig. Gen. Jesus Durante earlier claimed that his team did some research before using the vaccine, which could mean the vaccines were bought and not donated.
Robredo said the government has to say how the vaccines were brought into the country and whether these were donated or bought. She said if those close to the President “are the ones violating existing protocols and laws, it’s not helping us at all.”
The Vice President pointed out that while the some people are anxiously waiting for the vaccines as other countries start inoculating their populations, Filipinos were greeted by reports that some “special” individuals were already vaccinated.
“That’s the problem, those special individuals did not follow regulations. So there are a lot of questions that need to be answered to ensure the confidence of the public,” she said.
The National Bureau of Investigations has started its probe on the use of the unregistered vaccine. The Senate said it would conduct its own probe on the issue.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana last week said the vaccine used by the PSG was smuggled because it was unauthorized but defended the PSG.
Sen. Richard Gordon said Durante “should consider resignation” as PSG commander for violating laws in connection with the inoculation of his men.
In an interview with radio dzBB, Gordon said Durante is liable for smuggling for allowing the entry of the vaccines without authorization from the Bureau of Customs and by allowing his men to be injected with the vaccines which were not yet approved by the Food and Drugs Administration.
Gordon said Durante placed the lives of his men in danger by allowing them to be inoculated with the yet-to-be-approved vaccine.
Durante has said the vaccinations started as early as September and the last batch got their doses last October. He said the PSG men inoculated themselves with the vaccines within the PSG compound.
He, however, did not confirm or deny if the PSG men were vaccinated with the ones manufactured by Sinopharm, adding that they did not ask permission from higher-ups regarding the inoculation as they informed the President of the vaccination only after all close-in security personnel got the vaccines.
Gordon said there is no other way for Durante but consider quitting his post.
“I am not saying that he should resign, I said he should consider it because sa kanya ipapataw yan, ngayon siya ang naiipit di ba (I am not saying that he should resign. I said he should consider it because he is responsible for such an action, and now he is in the middle of the controversy)?”
Senate minority leader Franklin Drilon earlier said Durante must appear before the Senate Committee of the Whole, which will start its hearing on the government’s vaccine roll-out program on January 11, to shed light on the matter.
Saturday, said Durante can be called to another Senate hearing but not the one which will be done by the Senate Committee of the Whole.
Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo said the PSG members, instead of being criticized, should be commended “for putting their lives on the line to protect PRRD (President Duterte).”
Panelo said the PSG’s action did not cause any damage or injury to anyone. Neither were public funds used.
He said no rule was broken as the PSG did not engage in the manufacture, import, export, sale, or distribution of a new drug or vaccines.
“The rule of law was observed. The PSG’s action, aside from being legally valid, is consistent with — and pursuant to — its duty of securing the life of the President at all cost.
We note that the efficacy of the vaccine is not 100 percent and is without FDA approval, members of the PSG, being frontliners, took the risk of endangering themselves just so they can accomplish their duty of protecting the President from COVID-19 infection. Consciously endangering one’s own life, is not a crime,” he added.
A group of private companies, through the Philippine government, has secured an additional 3.7 million to 3.8 million doses vaccines made by AstraZeneca, presidential adviser on entrepreneurship Joey Concepcion said.
Concepcion said AstraZeneca is selling its vaccines under a zero-profit scheme for 2021, which the Philippine government and the country’s private sector were able to secure. He said the prices of vaccines are expected to go up after 2021.
An initial agreement for 2.6 million doses was signed by the Philippine government and the private sector – composed of 35 big companies in the country – with AstraZeneca in December 2020 at about $5 per doze.
The private firms, which paid for the 2.6 million doses, are donating half of the vaccine to the government through the Department of Health while half would go to their companies and employees. The first batch of AstraZeneca vaccines is expected in May to June.
Concepcion said under the new agreement, 240 private companies have joined, and the half of the 3.7 to 3.8 million doses of vaccines would again be donated to government.
He said the private sector has taken the initiative not just to help the country but also to help their businesses as their employees cannot work without having the additional protection that the vaccines could provide.
Reports said the AstraZeneca vaccine has an efficacy rate of up to 70.4 percent and should be given in two doses with a four to 12 weeks interval. Its use has been approved in the United Kingdom, India, Argentina and El Salvador.
Concepcion said the two batches of vaccines secured by the private firms – through the Philippine government – from AstraZeneca is separate from the vaccine package that government negotiated with the same firm.
The government is also looking at the delivery of its own vaccines from AstraZeneca vaccines in the second to third quarter of 2021. — With Raymond Africa and Jocelyn Montemayor