After you

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - January 18, 2021 - 12:00am

With the Duterte administration still bent on procuring the Sinovac COVID shots, it must move to overcome public resistance to China-made vaccines. The best way is to present a Cabinet member, if not President Duterte himself, receiving the jab in public.

Since they keep reassuring us of the safety and efficacy of the vaccine (the Chinese are not lacking in brains, we all agree), our officials should put their money where their mouth is and lead by example. Last week President Joko Widodo did it in Indonesia with the Sinovac shot; Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan followed on Friday.

So far, I’ve seen no report of Chinese President Xi Jinping receiving any COVID vaccine. We’re also waiting for Russian President Vladimir Putin to get his Sputnik V shot developed by Russia’s Gamaleya Institute, as the Kremlin announced last December.

Maybe Duterte will follow his idol Putin in invoking age, and allow perhaps his vaccine czar, Carlito Galvez Jr., the designated top defender of the Sinovac jab, to do the honors and get the first shot in public. Galvez knows what he’s doing and if anything goes wrong with the vaccination program, blame him, Duterte has said. All members of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases, plus members of the vaccine panel evaluating the jabs to be used in the country, should be next in line. After you, folks.

It’s no joking matter; any misstep could further set back the national immunization program for all diseases, as the Dengvaxia hysteria did. In interviews, health professionals working with the government in the vaccination program have said they are moving to ensure that health safety procedures are strictly followed.

But the secrecy surrounding the Chinese-made vaccines, which the government has already said would be the only shots available until June, is making the health professionals’ mission difficult.

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Even if the government manages to persuade enough Filipinos about the safety and efficacy of the Sinovac jab, it will have to contend with suspicions of “kick-vacs” in the deal.

At the second Senate hearing last week on the vaccination program, Sen. Imee Marcos raised the bribery issue against Sinovac, which she said fueled Pinoy questions about “Sino Vacumita?”

So I looked up the issue and came across this story dated Dec. 4, 2020 in The Washington Post. The title: “As China nears a coronavirus vaccine, bribery cloud hangs over drug maker Sinovac.”

Here are excerpts:

“Chinese coronavirus-vaccine maker Sinovac Biotech is good at getting its products to market. It was first to begin clinical trials of a SARS vaccine in 2003 and first to bring a swine flu vaccine to consumers in 2009.

“Its CEO was also bribing China’s drug regulator for vaccine approvals during that time, court records show. …

“A review of public records and trial testimonies by The Washington Post reflects that Sinovac’s rise to the front ranks of China’s vaccine industry took place with the help of priority projects from Beijing and kickbacks to officials who assisted in regulatory reviews and sales deals. A number of details from the court cases have not been reported previously, in part because of China’s censored media.

“In 2016 court testimony, Sinovac’s founder and chief executive, Yin Weidong, admitted to giving more than $83,000 in bribes from 2002 to 2011 to a regulatory official overseeing vaccine reviews, Yin Hongzhang, and his wife. Yin Hongzhang confessed to expediting Sinovac’s vaccine certifications in return.

“Those years corresponded to Sinovac’s breakout period, when the biotech start-up founded in 2001 was handpicked by Beijing officials to lead development of vaccines for SARS, avian flu and swine flu.

“Yin Hongzhang, who shares a surname with Sinovac’s CEO but is no relation, was sentenced in 2017 to a decade in prison for taking bribes from Sinovac and seven other companies. Sinovac’s Yin Weidong, now 56, was not charged and continues to oversee the company’s coronavirus-vaccine drive this year.

“For Sinovac, that case was not a one-off: At least 20 government officials and hospital administrators across five provinces admitted in court to taking bribes from Sinovac employees between 2008 and 2016.

“Sinovac said in 2017 it had launched an internal investigation in response to the bribery cases. It has yet to announce the investigation’s result.

“In its latest annual report, released in April, Sinovac said that Yin Weidong ‘was not charged with any offense or improper conduct and he cooperated as a witness with the procuratorate. To our knowledge, the Chinese authorities have not commenced any legal proceedings or government inquiries against Mr. Yin.’

“The annual report said that Sinovac maintained strict anti-corruption policies but that ‘these policies may not be completely effective.’

“In a statement to The Post, a Sinovac spokesman said the company had entrusted the legal system with handling the past bribery cases appropriately. He said the CEO’s ability to do his work was unaffected. Sinovac did not make Yin Weidong available for an interview.

“Corruption in China’s pharmaceutical industry is a long-running scourge. Dali Yang, a University of Chicago political scientist, said China’s shift from decentralized drug approvals in the 1990s to centralized reviews in the 2000s created opportunities for graft.

“But corruption is no longer as rampant as it once was, after several high-profile crackdowns sparked by drug-safety scandals, Yang said. In 2007, China executed Zheng Xiaoyu, the former head of the State Food and Drug Administration, in a grim warning to the industry. China’s President Xi Jinping launched another broad anti-corruption drive in 2012. …

“In a Beijing court in 2016, Yin Hongzhang, the former deputy director of the China Food and Drug Administration’s drug-testing center, said Sinovac’s Yin Weidong gave him cash bribes over nine years as he sought regulatory approval for the company’s vaccines for hepatitis A, SARS, avian flu, foot-and-mouth disease and influenza A.

“In exchange, Yin Hongzhang said he helped ‘accelerate the approval process’ for Sinovac’s vaccines.

“Sinovac’s CEO said in his testimony that he ‘could not refuse’ requests from a regulator.”

*      *      *

As for Chinese state-owned pharmaceutical giant Sinopharm, whose vaccine members of the Presidential Security Group self-administered (they claimed) way back in September, here’s what The Post mentioned in its report, after Xi launched his anti-corruption crackdown:

“Vaccine mishaps continued to occur in recent years. In 2018, Sinovac’s larger rival Sinopharm recalled 400,000 shots of diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus vaccine for substandard quality.”

For the full story, here’s the link:


You be the judge.

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