Unauthorized vaccination probe must be completed

Good news! Despite President Duterte’s ordering the Presidential Security Group not to obey Senate summons for an investigation, the Food and Drug Administration persists in finding out how the unregistered vaccine for COVID-19 from China, which the PSG used to inoculate its soldiers in September and October, was illegally brought into the country.

It was Duterte himself who, on Dec. 26, disclosed the unauthorized PSG vaccinations, setting off calls for investigation by concerned agencies under the Executive. But on Jan. 4, when Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon urged summoning the PSG chief to a scheduled hearing on the government’s vaccination plans this month by the Senate sitting as a committee of the whole, the President warned/threatened: “If (the PSG) will be called to testify in Congress… I would ask the PSG to just shut up. Do not answer. Invoke the right against self-incrimination and you will not get anything.”

Addressing the Senate, he added: “Please do not cite them in contempt by detaining them. I will not allow it. I will go to Congress and get them. If you do that there will be a little crisis. That’s up to you. I am prepared to defend my soldiers. I will not allow them for all their good intentions to be brutalized in a hearing.”

Refraining from engaging the President on his pugnacious declaration, the Senate nonetheless said it would start its inquiry on Jan. 11.

Working closely with the National Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Customs, FDA chief Eric Domingo emphasized the objective: to “get information useful in enforcing the mandate of the FDA and ensure that only registered, safe and effective drugs gain access to the population.” Notable is Domingo’s move – sending a letter to the PSG requesting for more information on the vaccination of the presidential guards. For its own good, the PSG must positively respond.

“Our concern here is the safety of those vaccinated,” Domingo clarified. “We won’t arrest those soldiers… We are concerned about how those vaccines were able to enter [the country] and if they are handled properly.”

In stark contrast to Domingo’s assertion of the FDA mandate, the Armed Forces of the Philippines abruptly called off its own investigation on the PSG vaccination last Tuesday, when it was supposed to start. AFP spokesman Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo explained that although Duterte’s gag order on the PSG wasn’t directed at the AFP, “we take our cue from that because he is the Commander-in-chief of all armed forces.”

The PSG is under the AFP, yet it carried out the vaccinations without clearance from either the AFP or the defense department (a disregard of the chain of command). In announcing the AFP probe, Arevalo had said that AFP chief Gen. Gilbert Gapay wanted to know the “factual records and matters that are relevant to the so-called procurement and administration of these vaccines.” Vowing no whitewash, Gapay ordered the probe to be finished “as soon as possible.”

More importantly, the AFP said its own investigation could help the military improve its own rules, regulations and policies. In backing off, such a commendable objective was dropped.

Not surprisingly, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana approved the AFP’s withdrawal from investigating the PSG incident. He had earlier acknowledged that the vaccines used by the PSG were smuggled. Yet he has issued a statement saying: “As far as we at the DND and the AFP are concerned, this issue is moot and academic and we will not engage in any more discussion.”

Leading national dailies – The Philippine STAR and the Philippine Daily Inquirer, in their respective editorials – have not let pass Duterte’s over-protectiveness of “his” soldiers in ordering the PSG not to honor the summons from the Senate, where he feared they would be “brutalized.”

The STAR Jan. 6 editorial raised two key points:

1) Absent a regulator (the FDA) vetting the vaccine used by the PSG, how could they be sure it was safe and efficacious; otherwise, the recipients remain vulnerable to COVID-19 infection and transmission, putting at risk the very man they wanted to protect: Duterte. “That would constitute reckless, irresponsible endangerment of the nation’s top official.” And,

2) If there was nothing wrong with the vaccine, why would the President warn them against self-incrimination should they testify before investigators? “If there is nothing wrong, why would the truth be incriminating? What is there to hide?”

On other hand, the Inquirer’s Jan. 7 editorial, “Justifying illegality,” pointed out that Duterte’s Dec. 26 revelation “triggered a barrage of pointed criticism and brought to the fore grave concerns.” Not the least of these concerns was that the “President himself, sworn to uphold and defend the law, appeared to be fine with government personnel in his very circle violating the Food and Drug Administration Act of 2009.”

President Duterte’s rude and bellicose stance towards the Senate has often echoed the positions of US President Donald Trump. Defeated in his campaign for reelection, the latter’s latest desperate action was to incite his followers to march and break into the US Capitol (Congress) building last Wednesday in a bid to disrupt or stop the bicameral confirmation of Joseph Biden Jr.’s clear victory in the Nov. 3 presidential elections. For the nth time, his burning intention to stay in power was frustrated.

Will Duterte’s feral instinct spur him to entertain a similar idea? Something Duterte and Trump have in common is their irrational fear and hatred of what they call a “communist takeover.” In campaigning for the November elections, Trump kept feeding his supporters with misinformation that should Biden win the presidency, “the US would descend into socialism, communism, or worse.”

Trump’s irrational, baseless conclusion is echoed here by Duterte. Two months ago, according to Senate President Vicente Sotto III, the President told some lawmakers and ranking AFP officers in Malacañang: “I want this problem of the CPP-NPA solved and the best way is we remove the party-list system or change it in the Constitution.” Recall that over the past 10 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, in his weekly reports to the public on how his government has been responding to the pandemic, from time to time Duterte keeps railing against the CPP-NPA, irrelevantly.

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Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

Published in Philippine Star
January 9, 2021

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