MANILA – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's top lieutenants are struggling to contain the fallout from an unsanctioned Covid-19 vaccination of top Cabinet ministers and members of an elite military unit amid cries for accountability from government critics and health advocates.
On Wednesday (Dec 30), Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in an interview with ABS-CBN News that the vaccine doses used were "smuggled" but that he felt what happened was "justified".
Earlier this week, Mr Lorenzana and other senior officials confirmed that at least one minister and Mr Duterte's bodyguards were given jabs of China’s Sinopharm Covid-19 vaccine.
Health regulators said they would investigate since this vaccine has yet to receive sanction for use in the Philippines.
They added that since they had not cleared the vaccine doses to be imported, certain laws might have been broken.
Brigadier-General Jesus Durante, head of the Presidential Security Guard (PSG), said in a televised interview on Wednesday that he felt compelled to have some of his men inoculated because they provide close-in security to Mr Duterte, who at 75 is highly vulnerable to the coronavirus.
Some 4,000 men serve in the PSG, although not all are assigned to Mr Duterte.
Brig-Gen Durante revealed that those in the PSG who worked in close proximity to Mr Duterte were given two doses of Sinopharm's vaccine in September and October.
At the time, the vaccine had not received regulatory approval anywhere in the world. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain authorised it for emergency use only this month.
Experts continue to question data supporting claims that the vaccine is at least 86 per cent effective against Covid-19.
Mr Duterte's spokesman, Mr Harry Roque, said the vaccine was "safe" to use in the Philippines, citing its mass use in China.
Brig-Gen Durante said his command found Sinopharm’s vaccine "appropriate".
"We've done our research. We found the appropriate vaccine for us… So, we took the risk," he said.
He added it was the PSG's own initiative, without orders from Mr Duterte or the military's top brass.
"We vaccinated ourselves. It's so easy," he said.
Mr Lorenzana said Brig-Gen Durante and the PSG would have to explain their actions; however, he personally felt they were "justified".
"The vaccines were not fake and there seem to be no adverse side effects," he said.
He added that there were probably no more than 300 PSG men who were vaccinated.
But Mr Duterte's critics said this "secret vaccination" was a setback for the government's vaccination programme because it undermined the authority of regulators and suggested that health workers would not be prioritised by the government to get vaccinated first.
"This was unsafe and illegal," Senator Risa Hontiveros said.
The Health Professionals Alliance Against Covid-19 issued a statement calling for a "safe and transparent" vaccine roll-out.
"The success of any vaccination program depends on mutual trust between the public and institutions," it said.