HOWIE SEE IT: The COVID vaccine program is a mess even before it starts

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By Atty. Howie Calleja

With the number of positive COVID cases still on the rise, it is unsurprising that the demand for the newly-released vaccines continues to remain high worldwide, including the Philippines. In many of his earlier speeches to the nation, President Duterte paraded the vaccine as the only solution to the COVID pandemic, and that he had dealt with China and Russia on the acquisition of said vaccines. He also categorically stated that we will be back to normal by December. However, it is already January 2021 and the situation is even worse than before. There are two primary issues concerning the procurement of the vaccine: first, the empty threat of President Duterte to terminate the VFA if Pfizer does not provide the doses he demands, and second, the illegal smuggling and inoculation of unapproved Chinese vaccines to select soldiers and government officials.

Last December 26, in a speech with several Cabinet Secretaries present, President Rodrigo Duterte threatened the existence of the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States on their ability to provide the Philippines with 20 million dosages of the Pfizer vaccine. Particularly, he said, “Kung hindi sila makadeliver ng maski minimum 20 million vaccines, they better get out. No vaccines, no stay here”. It is worth mentioning that President Duterte has previously sent a notice about the termination of the VFA in February 2020, but such has been suspended in June and November. Currently, the VFA will last until 2021, but such is uncertain given the diplomatic blackmail Duterte has resorted to.

Again, instead of blaming the government officials who botched the initial deal with Pfizer, which in turn led Singapore to acquire the vaccines ahead of the Philippines, President Duterte immediately passes the blame and points a finger to the United States. While Pfizer is a US-based company, it is a private corporation and nobody can compel it to supply more than what the US government had contracted it to buy. The decision to allocate the vaccines does not belong to the US government alone, and neither can the vaccines be given for free.

All of this is an obvious ploy on the part of President Duterte – giving the USA unreasonable demands and making it look like Pfizer deliberately refuses to provide the Philippines with the vaccines so that in the end, there will be more reason to acquire Chinese made vaccines instead, which is actually the preferred provider of the administration. Contrary to best practices used in other countries of procuring the safest and more effective vaccines President Duterte appears to be limiting its options to the Chinese vaccine with the least allowable potency and without a clear safety record compared to other alternative options. Given everything that could have been done to address the problem concerning the vaccines, I consider all President Duterte’s words as empty threats coming from a desperate leader. In fact, the reason why the Pfizer deal fell apart was partly due to President Duterte’s refusal to sign a non-disclosure agreement, and these threats appear to be almost amusing, as they tend to place the Philippines in an even worse situation which is endangering the lives of more Filipinos. Rather than finding solutions, the administration is creating even more problems for the nation.

As if this circus and myriad of errors committed by the administration is not enough, there comes another cycle of denial, admission, finger-pointing and illegal justification. This time, it concerns President Duterte’s admission regarding the administration of smuggled and illegal Chinese vaccines which have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, to military men and some key government officials. In particular, soldiers and members of the Presidential Security Group are those who were known to have been given the vaccine. Many government agencies and officials were left in the dark about the sudden and selective administration of the vaccine, including the Department of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, and even the Bureau of Customs which makes the entire process dubious.

Our laws are very clear. The FDA Law prohibits the importation, possession, distribution, and administration of the vaccine. In fact, the FDA Guidelines in reference to the Bayanihan Law lays down the legal framework and guidelines on how to import and use these vaccines. No exemption has been made for soldiers, and thus, it is clearly illegal. The Chinese vaccines used are not near the stages already achieved by Pfizer, Moderna, and Astra – Zeneca.

Defense Secretary Lorenzana stated that these vaccines were smuggled but justified, a statement that sadly betrays his character and reveals his loyalty to the President over his loyalty to the Country. In addition and as if to sound comical, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque now justifies the use of the vaccines saying that such is a donation, and even likened it to a token and a simple Christmas present, similar to the birthday cake he received from his staff. This explanation is entirely ridiculous because even if such vaccines were given under the guise of a donation, receiving these is illegal under many laws – not only the FDA Law but also the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act and even the Customs Code. Given the way the law is brazenly and openly flouted by our own government officials, it is no longer a surprise that the vaccine program is in a mess.

The most pressing problem still remains to be the COVID pandemic, which should be the priority of our government. However, it has proven itself incapable of securing a proper vaccine in time, and now, it resorts to blackmailing the U.S.A for doses of the Pfizer vaccine using the VFA as a bargaining chip, and there is also justification for the smuggling and use of illegal vaccines. The Philippines cannot fight the pandemic in such a mess. Ultimately, the sad but inevitable truth is that the real victims of the government’s incompetency are the citizens themselves, the very people who the administration is supposed to serve. Unless the government shapes up its act and starts to prioritize the people over personal self-interest, the Philippines will never be able to find a solution to the problems that have been plaguing the country.