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Duterte wonât allow PSG to face vaccine probe
In this Feb, 25, 2020 photo, President Rodrigo Duterte listens to the message of incoming Presidential Security Group Commander Colonel Jesus Durante III during the PSG Change of Command ceremony at the PSG Compound in Malacañang Park, Manila.
Presidential photo/Simeon Celi Jr.

Duterte won’t allow PSG to face vaccine probe

Edith Regalado (The Philippine Star) - January 5, 2021 - 1:00am

MANILA, Philippines — President Duterte will not allow members of the Presidential Security Group to face any probe on how select PSG members were able to acquire and inoculate themselves with COVID-19 vaccines not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The President announced this last night, hours after Armed Forces of the Philippines chief Gen. Gilbert Gapay formed a 10-member team to investigate the matter, which was not cleared with the AFP or the Department of National Defense.

There will be no whitewash in the probe, according to the AFP leadership.

The Department of Justice – through the National Bureau of Investigation – and the Senate are also poised to investigate the controversy.

AFP spokesman Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo said the investigation starts today with the Office of the Inspector General headed by Lt. Gen. Franco Nemesio Martin Cacal spearheading the probe.

He told reporters at a press briefing yesterday that Gapay wants to know how the PSG, headed by Brig. Gen. Jesus Durante III, acquired and administered the vaccines purportedly without the help of professional health workers.

“The AFP chief-of-staff wants to know through an investigation the factual records and matters that are relevant to the so-called procurement and administration of these vaccines,” he said.

Arevalo said the members of the 10-man investigating team are from various military units including the Judge Advocate General’s Service, Provost Marshal Office and Intelligence Service.

“The AFP chief’s directive is to finish the investigation and determine (the facts and information) as soon as possible,” he said.

Arevalo said the military would be transparent in its effort to get to the bottom of the issue.

Echoing President Duterte, Arevalo said the AFP recognizes the gesture of the PSG members as a sign of their willingness to protect the commander-in-chief.

Arevalo said Gapay wants an investigation that would show the facts and circumstances surrounding the PSG’s unauthorized inoculation of its members.

He said Gapay and Durante have already discussed the matter, but gave no details. On calls for Durante’s resignation, Arevalo said “we are leaving it to him” to make a decision.

Arevalo said that while the PSG is under the AFP, it is peculiar in its mission as its principal is no less than the commander-in-chief.

No criminal offense

For Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, getting inoculated with unauthorized vaccines may not be a criminal offense, but laws on vaccine approval and administration should still be strictly followed.

“Under our existing laws, a person who freely and voluntarily gets himself inoculated with an unregistered or unauthorized drug or vaccine does not incur any criminal liability, unless he himself has caused its unlawful procurement or promotes its use by other people,” Guevarra said.

“Although vaccination is a matter of personal survival, it is important that laws on vaccine approval and administration be strictly observed for the benefit of everyone,” Guevarra added.

As for those who are aware that they are administering an unregistered vaccine, they could be held liable under the Medical Practice Act of 1959.

“Section 11 of the Food and Drug Administration Law prohibits the manufacture, importation, sale, offering for sale, distribution, transfer, promotion, etc. of any health product that is unregistered with the FDA, and Sec 12 thereof imposes the penalty of fine and/or imprisonment,” he said.

In its investigation, the NBI said it would look into possible violations of the Customs Modernization and Tariff Act and the FDA Act.

“That’s part of the investigation. We will try to reach out to the FDA… and also with the Bureau of Customs on the matter of importation or smuggling of vaccines. And with the PSG for the narration of the circumstances,” NBI spokesman Ferdinand Lavin said in an interview with ANC.

The bureau’s Special Action Unit will lead the probe on the alleged smuggling of vaccines, according to its chief Emeterio Dongallo.

“We don’t want to speculate here. We will just do our job. Where the evidence will lead us, then we will conclude this investigation with the appropriate recommendation,” Lavin said when asked if the investigation would cover key officials.

He said the NBI is also set to investigate the reported vaccination of 100,000 Chinese nationals, including Philippine offshore gaming operator (POGO) workers, in the country as alleged by civic leader Teresita Ang-See.

Jan.11 probe

The Senate, for its part, said it would start its inquiry on Jan. 11. Senate President Vicente Sotto III said he would still consult his colleagues on the matter of summoning the inoculated Cabinet and military officials even as he warned this might distract the chamber from the main objective of ensuring the success of the government’s mass vaccination program.

“The original question of the hearing is ‘why don’t we have the vaccine yet?’, ‘When and how to distribute and store them?’ While the issue for others is ‘why do others already have the vaccine?’” Sotto told reporters.

Shortly before adjourning session in December last year, the Senate approved the proposal of Sen. Francis Pangilinan to convene the committee of the whole to look into the government’s vaccination program for COVID-19.

In a statement yesterday, Pangilinan expressed support for Vice President Leni Robredo’s call for a transparent investigation of the unregistered vaccines given to some members of the military and the PSG.

The senator said the inoculation of the military and the President’s guards made a mockery of the FDA.

Sen. Richard Gordon on Sunday said Durante III must step down and explain his “criminal act” of soliciting unregistered COVID-19 vaccines.

Gordon also urged the Cabinet officials, who reportedly had themselves secretly vaccinated with smuggled serums from the state-owned Sinopharm of China, to come clean for transparency and to allow health authorities to examine them for possible adverse side effects.

Reacting to the Senate’s coming investigation, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said senators should show “respect” to a co-equal branch of government.

“I don’t think it was a mistake to protect the President. If there is – whatever accountabilities issue – the PSG would answer that. As I said, if they can face death, what more the punishments that may be slapped on them?” Roque said at a press briefing.

Asked whether Malacañang would allow Durante to appear before the Senate, Roque replied: “I don’t know but I don’t understand why the Senate is meddling in a co-equal branch of government, in the security of the President, when the President does not meddle in the security of the Senate.” – Paolo Romero, Marc Jayson Cayabyab, Evelyn Macairan, Alexis Romero

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