SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - December 30, 2020 - 12:00am

Our vaccine procurement and overall COVID response are looking increasingly chaotic.

The Cabinet can’t speak with one voice on the travel ban on countries where the COVID variant has been reported. Airport authorities, who posted a list of countries covered by the supposed ban and then hastily took it down, only to restore it last night, must be asking, “Ano ba talaga, kuya, mamser?”

No one seems to know how the Chinese-made Sinopharm vaccines entered the Philippines. The Bureau of Customs has promised a probe. If the BOC is unaware of it, did the vaccines enter through Scarborough Shoal in a submarine?

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who chairs the National Task Force Against COVID-19, said he was not informed about the inoculation of members of the Presidential Security Group using the Chinese-made vaccine. He has belatedly learned that the PSG inoculation took place a month ago.

Until yesterday, we still didn’t know who or how many of the Cabinet members received the vaccine. Why the secrecy?

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With Malacañang itself setting the example in ignoring the admonition of health officials against using unregistered vaccines, this is turning out to be every man for himself in getting a COVID shot.

Seeing the disorganization in the national government, where the overriding focus seems to be the use of 25 million Chinese-made vaccines ASAP or at least before Western vaccines arrive, local government executives and businessmen are readying their own procurement from their preferred sources.

Mainly, these are the vaccines already approved, or poised for approval, by drug regulators in the US, UK and the European Union: the jabs made by US / German firms Pfizer / BioNTech and Moderna, and soon the one by the UK’s AstraZeneca and Oxford University.

The Food and Drug Administration, the ONLY agency that is supposed to vet any COVID vaccine for use in the Philippines, is looking clueless and inutile, after President Duterte himself disclosed that Sinopharm vaccines are not only here but have already been used on soldiers. Like the BOC, the FDA has promised a probe on the entry of the shots.

The statements of the BOC and FDA could be in reaction to Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon’s pointing out that administration of a vaccine not registered with the FDA is illegal and a violation of Republic Act 3720, as amended by RA 9711, as well as FDA Circular No. 2020-036, which sets the guidelines for emergency use authorization or EUA for COVID vaccines and drugs. Violators face imprisonment of up to 10 years and fines ranging from P50,000 to P5 million, Drilon pointed out.

Yesterday, PSG chief Brig. Gen. Jesus Durante III cleared the President of involvement in the vaccination, saying Duterte was informed only after the fact. Durante refused to say if the vaccines were made by Sinopharm or how the PSG procured them.

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The Chinese embassy had said that the Philippines would be getting 25 million vaccines made in China. Are all the vaccines already here? The FDA chief said Sinopharm has not even applied yet for EUA for its vaccine. So how did the Sinopharm vaccines enter the country without FDA scrutiny? Who cleared the entry and their use?

If any COVID vaccine can enter the country anyway without a green light from the FDA, why couldn’t we bring in ASAP this January those 10 million Pfizer doses, with verified 95 percent efficacy?

After the Pfizer deal, facilitated by the US State Department in coordination with our Department of Foreign Affairs way back in July, had to be pushed back by half a year because “somebody dropped the ball” in Manila, President Duterte then told the US to hand over those vaccines, or else the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement would push through.

For the life of me, I can’t understand how this statement manifests our “independent foreign policy,” as claimed by Malacañang.

We also need clarity on the nature of the 25 million Chinese vaccines: are they donated, as Beijing has been doing in other developing countries as part of its soft power projection, or are taxpayers footing the bill? Or, as some nasty critics are muttering, is it a donation that will be passed off as a paid procurement? If so, who’s the beneficiary of the katas ng COVID fund-raising?

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Eyebrows have also been raised over the priority given to the presidential guards and Cabinet member(s) in the hush-hush vaccination. If they want to overcome vaccine hesitancy in the wake of the Dengvaxia scandal, full media coverage would be better – as leaders and elderly celebrities in other countries have done.

In countries that have rolled out the Pfizer vaccine, the first doses went to the most vulnerable elderly and then to the health frontliners.

In our country, the presidential spokesman explains that protecting their principal from COVID infection is part of the mandate of the PSG. So they’re the first in this country to be inoculated.

Some folks averse to any medicine made in China are quite happy to let the PSG serve as guinea pigs.

In my case, I pay good money at Beijing Tong Ren Tang for traditional treatment and take their prescribed medicine whose ingredients I wouldn’t recognize, even in the off-chance that the names have English translations. They work wonders for me, and I don’t think it’s just because I’m part-Chinese.

My late uncle from Fujian used to sell such treatments and tonics that he himself concocted, from exotic herbs and animal parts that he bought from Hong Kong and the mainland.

So I wouldn’t denigrate Chinese medicine; those from Taiwan are even better. But after the scandal over melamine in milk formula, pet food, toothpaste and even White Rabbit candy, the confidence of Filipinos and other non-Chinese in the safety and efficacy of medicines made in the mainland has been shaken.

Those who accepted the vaccine in the Philippines may also take note that in mid-December, Peru suspended its clinical trials of the Sinopharm vaccine because a test volunteer developed symptoms of the rare autoimmune disorder called Guillain-Barre syndrome, which can paralyze the entire body.

Yesterday an official of the Philippine Medical Association sought a list of the vaccine recipients for proper monitoring of the effects.

An official of the Filipino Nurses United, meanwhile, lamented the priority given to the PSG ahead of health frontliners, unlike in other countries, where we’ve seen Filipino nurses getting their priority shots along with the elderly.

At the rate things are going, Pinoys may soon try to buy a COVID vaccine through the internet. And some might get it delivered right at their doorstep.

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