Senate must do its job
The Senate convenes tomorrow as a Committee of the Whole to look into the government’s P72.5-billion COVID-19 vaccination plan, even as senators remain divided on its scope: Should it merely focus on the Duterte administration’s preparedness to roll out the crucial vaccine program, or should it include other issues such as inoculation of the Presidential Security Group (PSG) with an unregistered vaccine?
President Duterte himself revealed late last month that many Filipinos, including those from the military, were inoculated with the China-made COVID-19 vaccine from Sinopharm, which has yet to clear the local Food and Drug Administration (FDA). AFP spokesperson Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo would later disclose that these military men were members of Mr. Duterte’s close-in security and that the inoculation was done supposedly to protect the health of the 75-year-old President.
But Arevalo’s statement did not address important questions in the public’s mind: How did an unregistered vaccine enter the country? Who facilitated its entry? Who sanctioned the inoculation of the presidential guards (and, per Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, at least one Cabinet member)? Under the guidelines released by the National Task Force Against COVID-19, uniformed personnel, including the PSG, are considered fifth priority for the vaccine after health care workers, senior citizens, and indigents.
Following the uproar, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque boldly said last week that the PSG would face any investigation (“Wala po tayong tinatago”), only for his principal to discredit the mouthpiece’s claim merely hours later. The President told his close-in security to “just shut up” and ignore the summons, and warned senators that forcing his men to appear could result in a “crisis.”
Senate President Vicente Sotto III, who will be leading the probe, has clarified that the focus would be on the government roadmap for the vaccination program, while Sen. Panfilo Lacson said “the immunization of 110 million Filipinos is more important than focusing on several PSG personnel.” However, Lacson also said this does not mean the probe would “brush aside issues that are truly related to the foremost issue.”
Illicit inoculation of the PSG aside, surely these related issues would also include the reported vaccination of some 100,000 Chinese nationals in the country, most of them Pogo workers? Sen. Richard Gordon, chair of the blue ribbon committee, said the Senate should take a look into claims that these Chinese nationals had been vaccinated as early as November, but the vaccinations were only discovered in December after one of those who received the unregistered vaccine shot reportedly caught the virus. “I want to know sino nagpasok [ng smuggled COVID-19 vaccines]? Bakit nila tinatago?” Gordon demanded. And, more importantly: “Are they laying the predicate that these Chinese vaccines are acceptable and to be procured by the government?”
The Duterte administration has months ago expressed preference for vaccines from China or Russia, despite the fact that these are more expensive and not as advanced in clinical trials compared to other vaccines. The illegal entry of a Chinese vaccine into the country and its unregulated use violated at least two laws: Section 11 of Republic Act No. 3720 or the FDA law, which prohibits the manufacture, importation, sale, offering for sale, distribution, transfer, and promotion of any health product that is unregistered with the health regulatory body; and RA 4224 or the Medical Act of 1959, which can hold liable those who administered the unregistered vaccine.
Aside from the Senate, other government agencies are also conducting their own investigation on the entry and use of an unregistered COVID-19 vaccine: the FDA, which expects to wrap up its probe by the third week of this month; the Bureau of Customs; and the National Bureau of Investigation, whose probe, according to Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, would tap other sources of information since the PSG has been barred from participating in any inquiry, and will focus on the alleged spread of the anti-COVID-19 vaccines in the black market. The Armed Forces of the Philippines, meanwhile, has already dropped its own investigation following the President’s directive.
Much is riding on the Senate investigation, not least the notion that accountability and the rule of law still exist under the present dispensation. The public expects the senators to assert their independence and go after those who broke the law, despite the President’s threat aimed at throttling the probe, or at least shielding his men from any fallout. Sotto was quick to defend the institution against accusations that it had soft-pedaled on the PSG issue even before the investigation could start following the President’s warning. “Kailan kami tumiklop?” he asked. The answer will be clear by tomorrow.
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