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Vaccination furor: PSG clears Duterte

Christina Mendez - The Philippine Star
Vaccination furor: PSG clears Duterte
“From the very beginning he wanted it… so he was surprised when he learned that some of my personnel were already inoculated… Actually, we told him after the fact… the close-in personnel were already inoculated,” Durante said in an interview aired over GMA News.
AFP / Yaksin Akgul

MANILA, Philippines — Following President Duterte’s disclosure that some soldiers and members of his Cabinet have already been inoculated with Chinese firm Sinopharm’s COVID-19 vaccine, Presidential Security Group commander Brig. Gen. Jesus Durante III yesterday cleared the Chief Executive of any liability in the vaccination of his close-in PSG personnel.

“From the very beginning he wanted it… so he was surprised when he learned that some of my personnel were already inoculated… Actually, we told him after the fact… the close-in personnel were already inoculated,” Durante said in an interview aired over GMA News.

The President has not been vaccinated yet, according to Durante.

“They are still waiting for the appropriate and perfect vaccine that will be administered to him. He cannot be vaccinated without verifying,” the PSG commander said.

Durante, whose unit’s primary responsibility is to protect the President at all costs, has also seemingly taken the proverbial bullet for the Chief Executive by clearing him of any liability.

“As I said, I can’t deny nor confirm if it’s Sinopharm, but I could say it’s one of the safest vaccines… because we researched about it. And by all means, we were able to acquire these vaccines for our unit alone,” he said, although he refused to reveal the source of the vaccines.

Durante explained that only a few among his men have been inoculated, which is why they did not think of even consulting the Department of Health (DOH) or making the vaccination public.

“This is not a massive vaccination… We acquired purposedly for the use of the close-in personnel of the President,” he said.

“We know the implications. We are aware of the DOH/FDA (Food and Drug Administration), that’s why we did not inform them about it anymore,” he added, as he defended the move by saying their concern was the primary safety and health of the President.

Reports that some members of the Cabinet have already been vaccinated surfaced in close circles at Malacañang some two months ago.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque Jr. has repeatedly denied getting a dose of the vaccine despite information that the vaccination of the select few has been a regular topic during the closed-door meetings of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases.

“What I can tell you is that the vaccine is one of the safest and uses traditional platform, and one of the safest platforms being used right now,” Roque said.

Sinopharm-Beijing, Sinopharm-Wuhan and Sinovac, and BioNTech of India are the vaccines now under clinical platforms, according to reports.

Durante negated reports from other military officials that the vaccination of China’s Sinopharm could not have been done without the nod of Duterte as Commander-in-Chief.

The PSG chief said he informed the President already when some of his close-in security detail had been administered with the vaccine, which Durante did not identify.

It was Duterte himself who revealed that some of the soldiers and members of the Cabinet received Sinopharm – even without FDA approval.

“I told him be rest assured that those who were inoculated will be safe and definitely, we did it for the President himself, so that the President will be safe. Even if he has not been vaccinated, the people around him have gotten the vaccine,” Durante said.

“That was the time when there were already vaccines coming out… so we researched on it, on what vaccine to acquire for the unit alone,” he added.

Last Saturday, Duterte confronted FDA chief Eric Domingo about the updates on the acquisition of the vaccines from the United States and China. In the process of explaining that China’s vaccines are effective, having been used among the Chinese population, the President teased that some Filipinos, including soldiers, have been inoculated with the vaccine.

Duterte even told Domingo not to look at him because they do not personally know each other.

The President also asked the FDA chief – half in jest – if he could be vaccinated “again, for example, if Pfizer is already in the country.”

No negative effects

One month after members of the PSG were given COVID-19 vaccinations ahead of FDA approval, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the solders are feeling and seeing no negative effects.

“It has been more than a month since the PSG personnel were inoculated and there is no adverse effect reported,” he told reporters, emphasizing that he sees no problem in the use of the vaccines on President Duterte’s security escorts.

“The vaccine has been approved, tried and found to be effective in the country of origin,” Lorenzana said, although he admitted that he does not know the vaccines’ country of origin.

The DND chief added that he also does not know who among the members of the Cabinet have received the vaccine as earlier confirmed by Interior Secretary Eduardo Año.

Lorenzana was among those who clarified on Monday that when Duterte announced that some soldiers have already been vaccinated, the Commander-in-Chief was referring to the PSG and not the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

On the issue of the vaccines being used ahead of any FDA approval, Lorenzana said he is not the right person to ask as such issues should probably be addressed to the DOH.

Meanwhile, the AFP has expressed its readiness to help in the rollout of vaccines and their delivery to far-flung areas as it also welcomed the idea of being among the first to be vaccinated as frontline service personnel.

‘Token’

Roque expressed belief that the move to vaccinate PSG members and some government officials does not constitute any violation of the anti-graft law.

Roque described as a “token,” which has “not so much value,” the China-developed vaccines that were given to select members of the Cabinet and the PSG personnel to dispel possible violation of Republic Act 3019 or the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.

“I am a lawyer. (That law) is not absolute. The tokens are allowed, especially during Christmas season. Tokens are allowed,” said Roque, who claimed he was not privy to the source of the Sinopharm vaccines used on the PSG and still unnamed members of the Cabinet.

The Palace spokesman made the statement to dismiss queries yesterday over the propriety of some members of the President’s official family and the PSG in getting injected with the still unregistered Sinopharm vaccine.

Under Section 2 (c) of the law, “Receiving any gift includes the act of accepting directly or indirectly a gift from a person other than a member of the public officer’s immediate family, in behalf of himself or of any member of his family or relative within the fourth civil degree, either by consanguinity or affinity, even on the occasion of a family celebration or national festivity like Christmas, if the value of the gift is under the circumstances manifestly excessive.”

The anti-graft law provides that “directly or indirectly requesting any gift, present, share percentage or benefit for himself or for any other person, in connection with any contract or transaction between the government and any other part, wherein the public officer in his official capacity has to intervene under the law” constitutes corrupt practices of public officials.

Before this, Roque defended the use of Sinopharm for some PSG personnel and Cabinet officials by saying no public money was used to acquire the vaccines and that the government’s target priority groups for the vaccines have not changed.

“We did not spend public funds for it and there is no violation of the government policy to prioritize the public. The priority groups remain: the underprivileged, senior citizens and the frontliners both health and otherwise,” he said.

“Since no public funds were used for this, there is no breach on the policy to prioritize (certain groups), which remains to be the present policy,” he added.

The Palace spokesman, however, was tongue-tied when pressed by reporters on who donated the vaccines and how the process went.

The government has allocated about P72.5 billion under the 2021 national budget to buy, store and roll out the vaccination program against COVID-19.

Roque maintained that there were no strings attached when the donation was made, and that the President was transparent about the vaccination when he mentioned it in his meeting with the government’s pandemic task force over the weekend.

The Palace spokesman also stressed that the vaccination was meant to protect the President and the nation.

No violation

For Año, the government did not violate any law when PSG members were inoculated with an unregistered COVID-19 vaccine.

Año yesterday said the inoculation of a “handful” of presidential guards was meant to protect the President from the risk of infection.

The interior and local government chief added that the vaccines were donated, thus there is no need to seek an emergency use authorization from the FDA.

“I don’t see anything illegal. I have also read the law; what is prohibited is selling and distributing without regulatory approval,” he said in an interview with ANC.

Año said it would also not affect the government’s rollout of a vaccination program next year targeting health care frontliners, vulnerable individuals, indigent families and members of the unformed service.

The inoculated PSG members volunteered for the vaccination program despite the health risks as part of their sworn duty to protect the President from all forms of threat, including viruses, according to the Año.

“It’s just as simple as soldiers protecting the President would want to be inoculated, and they are able to get some donation and the country that provided it has an approved EUA,” he said.

Año revealed that a Cabinet official also received the COVID-19 vaccine.

“I only know one member of the Cabinet, but I can’t disclose his identity because I don’t want to violate his right to privacy,” he said, although he is unaware when the Cabinet official was vaccinated and the specific vaccine that was used.

“I am not sure actually of the vaccine, but I think the President mentioned it’s Sinopharm,” he added. – Michael Punongbayan, Emmanuel Tupas, Pia Lee-Brago

COVID-19 VACCINE

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