Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte takes questions while wearing surgical mask on April 8, 2020. Photo: Facebook

MANILA – The Philippines is suffering among the worst Covid-19 outbreaks and economic crises in East Asia, with cases and deaths surging again after a long and crippling lockdown.

That desperation likely explains why President Rodrigo Duterte was so quick to accept Russia’s invitation to serve as a trial ground for its controversial, unproven Covid-19 vaccine.

As soon as Russia announced the production of its new Covid-19 treatment, Duterte, who has described President Vladimir Putin as his “favorite hero”, quickly and readily offered his countrymen as guinea pigs.

“I will tell President Putin that I have huge trust in your studies in combating Covid and I believe that the vaccine that you have produced is really good for humanity,” the Filipino president announced in a national address this week while offering himself as a trial subject.

“When the vaccine arrives, I will inject it publicly. Experiment with me, that’s fine. If it works on me, it will work on everyone,” he added, prompting critics to wonder whether this was a flippant comment or actual policy statement.

Duterte said he expects to be inoculated with Russia’s coronavirus vaccine by May. The Philippines is set to join clinical trials in October.

A handout photo provided by the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) shows samples of a vaccine against the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) developed by the Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology, in Moscow, August 6, 2020. The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF)/Handout

Shortly after Duterte’s announcement, the government quickly released a statement confirming that the Southeast Asian country will be among a number of developing countries that are open to collaborate on the co-production of the Russian vaccine.

“The Philippines stands ready to work with Russia on clinical trials, vaccine supply and production, and other areas deemed practicable by relevant Philippine and Russian agencies to address this global health emergency,” a government statement said.

A panel of local experts will review the results of Russia’s findings on its vaccine before large-scale human trials start in the Philippines, Duterte’s spokesman Harry Roque said on August 13. Russia will fund the clinical trial in the country, he said.

The Russian vaccine will likely be approved by the Philippines’ Food and Drug Administration by April 2021, Roque said, adding that moscow will also share technology to allow the Philippines to locally manufacture the vaccine.

Dubbed “Sputnik” in reference to Soviet Union’s pioneering satellite launch in 1950s, Russia’s vaccine coup is just the latest manifestation of vaccine nationalism, as major powers seek to gain an edge in an increasingly high stakes global race.

Yet experts around the world have raised serious concerns over the safety of the Russia-made vaccine, which they say has likely skipped over standard safety procedures due to Putin’s strongman quest to gain strategic momentum and influence over virus-besieged rivals.

Putin, who has no training in medical sciences, maintained in a televised address that the vaccine developed by Moscow’s Gamaleya Institute has cleared “all needed checks” and offers “sustainable immunity” and is “quite effective.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte meet on the sidelines of the APEC summit last year. Photo: Sputnik / Mikhail Klimentyev via Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte meet on the sidelines of an APEC summit. Photo: Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev

He glibly cited his own daughter as among the first trial patients for the newly-developed vaccine, which he described as a major contribution to humanity. 

“After the first injection her temperature was 38 degrees, the next day 37.5 and that was it. After the second injection her temperature went up slightly, then back to normal,” the Russian strongman said, citing observations of his own daughter’s experience.

“I think in this sense she took part in the experiment,” he added.

Russian Health Minister Mikhail Murashko was quick to back up his principal’s claim, maintaining the vaccine has “proven to be highly effective and safe” in major step towards “humankind’s victory” against the Covid-19 pandemic.

Health experts, however, were quick to point out major gaps in Russia’s claims. For one, the newly-announced vaccine is not on the World Health Organization’s list of six vaccines among more than 100 under development worldwide which have entered the third and final phases of clinical trials involving large-scale testing among human volunteers.

Russia’s Gamaleya Institute in Moscow, which developed the vaccine, has yet to release necessary safety and immunity data for peer-review by global experts, making any independent assessment of its safety and effectiveness close to impossible, experts say.

In an indirect jab at countries seeking to develop vaccines without proper safety standards, WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier warned, “Sometimes individual researchers claim they have found something, which is of course, as such, great news.”

World Health Organization (WHO) Health Emergencies Programme head Michael Ryan, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and WHO Chair of Emergency Committee on Ebola Robert Steffen attend a combined news conference after a two-day international conference focusing on COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine research. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

“But between finding or having a clue of maybe having a vaccine that works, and having gone through all the stages, is a big difference,” the WHO spokesman added, raising serious questions over Russia’s vaccine’s safety.

Dr Anthony Fauci, the director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and US President Donald Trump’s point man on the pandemic, was also equally skeptical of Russia’s supposed life-saving breakthrough.

“I hope that the Russians have actually definitively proven that the vaccine is safe and effective,” Fauci said during a public event this week. “I seriously doubt that they’ve done that,” he added.