Liability for VIP vaccinations
Recently, I was along Edsa and saw a woman by the road holding up a sign in black and white: “Bakuna mark of the beast.” At a time when the whole world is on the cusp of the much-anticipated vaccine against COVID-19, there are those among us who do not believe in vaccination. Anti-vaxxers may disavow medical science or invoke religion as basis, but it is another issue to equate vaccine shots as the worship of the devil.
Closer to secular concerns was the recent admission by President Duterte that members of the military, specifically the Presidential Security Group (PSG), had already received the COVID-19 vaccine from Sinopharm even without regulatory approval. At least, the President was being truthful.
Under the law, a vaccine is a drug intended for the prevention of disease. As a public health objective to protect the health of Filipinos, any drug should be registered with the Food and Drug Administration. It is particularly important to approve the COVID-19 vaccines because these were recently developed and have yet to be tried and tested.
If a drug is not registered or approved, it is an illegal drug that is prohibited from being imported or distributed.
What about small quantities for personal or private use? Doesn’t this happen regularly with a host of local health products without therapeutic value, or imported medicines sourced abroad? An overseas family member who brings in a few doses may be in violation of the law, but it is a question of practical enforcement.
With the declaration by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana that the vaccines used by the PSG were “smuggled,” does it mean that our very own close-in, highest-level security protection for the President and the Vice President of the Philippines, their immediate families, and former presidents and vice presidents of the country, is a unit of smugglers?
The PSG commander was man enough to take full responsibility for the PSG’s self-administration of the unregistered vaccine and absolve any other higher-up from such reckless action that he said was justified by the highest need to protect the President.
But this is precisely the problem: A drug, a vaccine must go through the regulatory process to determine its safety and efficacy to allow registration for its use. Without the requisite safety approval, the PSG commander was endangering the lives of his men and women. Worse, under the false impression of some PSG members that they are now 100-percent immune, they are assigned ever nearer to the President, who has admitted to a range of underlying health conditions. Is this not imperiling the national security of the country in a most dangerous way?
Taking responsibility also means making things right: It is imperative to be honest about the vaccine procurement. Remedial health measures can be quickly taken, i.e., to continuously monitor the PSG members for any adverse or allergic reactions and regularly check for antibodies. On the legal front, was it a command to be vaccinated or was it voluntary? Was there informed consent of the risks, or were the PSG men made to sign a blanket waiver?
Both the PSG commander and presidential spokesperson Harry Roque clarified that the vaccines were donated and no taxpayer money was involved. But we citizens pay for the PSG’s upkeep, and we want them to be safe. We want our money to be put to use by paying for vaccines that will protect all of us, starting with the Cabinet members.
There is no such thing as a free vaccine.
The donor must be disclosed. At a bargain price of P2,000 per dose multiplied by 100 PSG personnel, the cost was at least a cool P200,000. That is not a token amount. If the Sinopharm vaccine was a gift from a foreign entity or government, the consideration cannot be considered gratuitous.
The lone Cabinet member who was similarly vaccinated owes a duty of disclosure to the public. In fact, all public officials do. One cannot get inoculated by an illegal vaccine and keep silent about it, too.
These are public interest questions that, when answered truthfully and well, will promote public trust in our health protocols and public confidence in our leadership. When those in power are sincere and forthright, civic spirits can be lifted. It can ward away the mark of beasts. and will be a good way to start a happy new year.
Geronimo L. Sy is a former assistant secretary of the Department of Justice. He set up the department’s Office of Cybercrime and Office for Competition.
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