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No papers, no orders: Agencies left in the dark over Sinopharm vaccination mess

Christian Deiparine - Philstar.com
No papers, no orders: Agencies left in the dark over Sinopharm vaccination mess
This file handout picture taken on August 6, 2020 and provided by the Russian Direct Investment Fund shows the vaccine against COVID-19, developed by the Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology.
AFP / Russian Direct Investment Fund, Handout

MANILA, Philippines — The Duterte administration's move to vaccinate with unregulated vaccines on military and security details of the president has left other agencies uninformed as to how the doses were slipped inside the country with questions continuing to hound the move.

Government has found itself in another controversy related to vaccination efforts after President Rodrigo Duterte revealed that some had already received the supposed vaccines sans approval from local regulators, which the military and his security group later on confirmed.

On Tuesday, as the picture continues to unfold, it appears that officials could not offer answers as to how the inoculation was carried out, let alone how the Sinopharm vaccines found its way into the country. 

Food and Drug Administration chief Eric Domingo said the move was done without consulting them or the health department, and even Secretary Francisco Duque III was surprised to find about the development.

In Customs, spokesperson Vincent Maronilla said no communications were made to them that vaccines would be transported inside borders. He has refused to call too the incident as smuggling citing lack of details. 

But, he recognized that if the items were misdeclared, it would be tantamount to technical smuggling — or, as defined by law in the Philippines, importing goods through "fraudulent, falsified or erroneous declarations."

"We are looking on importations if something was misdeclared but was actually containing vaccines," he told DZBB in English. "We're looking at our records but as far as vaccines being brought in, there was nothing communicated to us nor instructions given."

FDA officials have not yet issued any approval for vaccine use in the country, and clinical trials have also yet to begin. The administration is also not expecting any doses delivery until March 2021, with no signed procurement deals yet a few days before the year ends.

Maronilla said they are informed "at a certain level" of government-level importations when asked on the possibility that the vaccines may have been flown in through a special flight. 

"For example, if it goes through air bases of the armed forces, it is coordinated to us for Customs formalities," he said. "So we'll ask other agencies which are actually capable of bringing this in."

He added that those responsible may face administrative and criminal charges should it be proven that the incident was smuggling. 

The FDA has announced that it is conducting an investigation on the matter, but the administration's continued defense of the secret vaccinations may stand to undermine the move. 

Apart from smuggling, the country's law on counterfeit drugs also prohibits the manufacture, import, sale and distribute unauthorized vaccines and drugs. It, however, does not penalize people who receive shots of unregistered vaccines.

President Rodrigo Duterte has so far been mum on the issue, but it was him who vowed that military personnel, whom he has tasked to carry out his coronavirus-related curbs, will be among the 24.7 million Filipinos prioritized to get the jabs.

RELATED: 1.76 million health workers will be first to get COVID-19 vaccines

State forces, however, are fifth in government's own list, with health workers and those most vulnerable being the first in line.

While he has not commented on it, Malacañang has sought to defend the move that has since been criticized, saying the vaccines for the Presidential Security Group were only donated. FDA's Domingo has said too that even donated vaccines need clearance from the health department and from the agency he leads.

With the administration's attempt to bury the issue along with the scant details provided by officials who have knowledge on the vaccination, it remains unclear if the probe will actually lead to making those responsible answer for the incident. — with reports from Gaea Katreena Cabico

ARMED FORCES OF THE PHILIPPINES

BUREAU OF CUSTOMS

COVID-19 VACCINE

DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH

FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION

NOVEL CORONAVIRUS

PRESIDENTIAL SECURITY GROUP

RODRIGO DUTERTE

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