MANILA - President Rodrigo Duterte's senior ministers and bodyguards have already received a vaccine that local regulators have yet to approve.
"I know some from the Cabinet and from the PSG (Presidential Security Group) who have already been inoculated," Interior Minister Eduardo Ano, who is among the overseers of a coronavirus task force, said in a radio interview on Monday (Dec 28).
But Mr Duterte himself has yet to get a shot, he said.
Soon after word got out of this early mass vaccination, the Health Ministry issued a warning against the use of unauthorised vaccines.
The mixed messaging is throwing the Philippines' vaccination programme into disarray.
Mr Ano declined to identify the vaccine used, but said it had already received emergency use authorisation abroad.
In his morning news conference, Mr Duterte's spokesman Harry Roque said soldiers were among those given the vaccine manufactured by China's Sinopharm.
Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana later disclosed that these were men and women assigned as Mr Duterte's bodyguards.
Sinopharm's vaccine has yet to be cleared by regulators, and the manufacturer has not even applied for the vaccine's emergency use authorisation in the Philippines.
But Mr Roque said the vaccine "is safe".
He said it has already been authorised for emergency use in the United Arab Emirates, which has rated it as 86 per cent effective, and is already being widely used in China.
He also suggested that vaccines that have already been allowed for emergency use in other countries, including those of Pfizer and Moderna, should already be safe to use here.
Clearance from the Philippines' Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is needed only to sanction commercial distribution and sale of vaccines, he said.
No one can sell or distribute vaccines without the FDA's approval, he said. But anyone who can secure doses on their own can have themselves inoculated, without being prosecuted.
"The law does not bar anyone from getting shots of unregistered vaccines," Mr Roque said.
In a statement later in the day, the PSG itself sought to justify why its men were inoculated with an unapproved vaccine.
"As the unit primarily tasked to protect and secure the highest official of the land, the PSG will have to ensure that the President is safe from all threats, including Covid-19. It is the PSG's primordial task to ensure that we have a healthy president serving our fellow Filipinos every day," PSG commander Brigadier-General Jesus Durante said.
The PSG has about 4,000 men, but not all are assigned as Mr Duterte's bodyguards. Some are assigned to Vice-President Leni Robredo, or tasked to protect key government installations.
But the FDA issued its own statement strongly advising against the use of an unsanctioned vaccine.
"Without the proper authorisation, there is no guarantee on the safety, quality and efficacy of said vaccine, as the same has not undergone the required technical evaluation by the FDA," said the agency's head, Dr Eric Domingo.
The Health Ministry said in its own statement that "the use of unregistered products poses harm to a person's health and safety. This is why only vaccines which have been approved and found to be safe should be administered".
Reports that a number of Cabinet ministers and soldiers, as well as some politicians and businessmen, have already received jabs of vaccines from China and elsewhere quickly drew criticism online.
"The FDA lost all credibility after the government admitted to being the biggest violator of its laws. How can you make the people follow if the government does not even follow and talks its way out of issue after issue, making legal what is illegal?" said Mr Paul John Co in a Facebook post.
The Philippines has been struggling to secure vaccines to inoculate a population of over 100 million.
It is in talks to acquire around 80 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines, including from Pfizer, Moderna and Britain's AstraZeneca, as well as Johnson & Johnson, India's Novavax, China's Sinovac and Russia's Gamaleya Institute.
But the soonest it can receive delivery of a vaccine is in March, from China's Sinovac, with a vaccine that Brazilian researches found to have above 50 per cent efficacy.