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

MANILA – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has stirred a hornet’s nest by ordering the mass inoculation of the Presidential Security Group (PSG) and various Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) units with a suspected Chinese-made vaccine.

Several cabinet members and top officials were also among those who reportedly received early vaccinations in what critics here view as a blatant violation of global standards, including the need to prioritize frontline medical workers and those from vulnerable demographic groups. 

The move has sparked a furor since the vaccines used by Duterte’s praetorian guards were reportedly “smuggled” from suspect sources, most likely in China, raising national security considerations.

Interior Secretary Eduardo Año has acknowledged that PSG members and soldiers were inoculated with the vaccine candidate of Chinese drugmaker Sinopharm. The vaccines have not yet been certified by regulatory bodies, sparking concerns over potential adverse effects.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, a former general who oversees the functions of all security agencies in the country, earlier confirmed that PSG forces obtained and administered the vaccines without his permission.

“Yes [the vaccines were] smuggled, because they were not authorized [by relevant authorities], only the government can authorize [their usage],” the defense chief said.

“They need to explain because they violated FDA rules,” he added, signaling potential investigations and the need for appropriate administrative sanctions.

Vice President Leni Robredo joined in the chorus of criticism, emphasizing the need for transparency and accountability to prevent special treatment and abuse of power.

A man wears a mask with the name of President Duterte and his election campaign slogan on April 5, 2020, in Quezon city, Metro Manila, Philippines. Photo: AFP/Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

“It should be investigated because we cannot allow the wrong message to be sent. If we let this pass, it’s like we’re encouraging people to commit wrongful acts because nothing will happen, there won’t be sanctions,” she said during a radio interview in Tagalog.

“The message here is, that’s allowed? If you have the means, if you have the money to buy [vaccines], then it’s justifiable?”, she added.

It is clear to most that the military units were vaccinated on Duterte’s command. Philippine Army chief Lieutenant General Cirilito Sobejana admitted in an interview that a number of AFP units, including officials and non-commissioned officers, were already vaccinated.

“Well, of course our President is our Commander-in-Chief [of the] Armed Forces of the Philippines, [thus]… I should say that [the order came] from [atop] the chain of command of the Armed Forces,” the army chief added, although he declined to give further details on the identity of the units and number of soldiers given the vaccines.

“There must be, I suppose, some explanation why the doctors have been willing to administer the vaccines without much hesitation,” added the general, trying to reassure the public about the safety of the vaccines.

It’s a touchy topic considering the vast majority of Filipinos won’t likely receive affordable and safe vaccines any time soon.

The Philippines has suffered 479,693 cases and 9,321 deaths from the disease, according to the Johns Hopkins University global tracker of the pandemic.

Despite suffering one of the worst Covid-19 outbreaks and economic crises in Asia, President Duterte’s government has failed to secure large-scale vaccine shipments from top Western suppliers he had in earlier speeches accused of price-gouging.

In this photo taken on August 12, 2020, a group of jeepney drivers with placards strapped along their bodies with writings “Mam/sir, we’re jeepney drivers, asking for your help”, beg for alms along a road in Manila. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

As a result, tens of millions of Filipinos will likely have to wait for as long as five years before they gain access to reliable and affordable vaccines, Carlito Galvez Jr, the government’s vaccine czar and pandemic response chief implementer, said in late November. He has said mass inoculations won’t likely start until 2022.

The nation expects to sign a deal for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine by January and is also working on a pact with Moderna for an initial 20 million doses, Galvez told media. The government is also aiming to secure at least 80 million vaccines from pharmaceuticals companies including AstraZeneca, Novavax and Johnson & Johnson, he said

The government will rely on international agency financing to purchase the vaccines.

The rising controversy has a geopolitical component. Last year, the former chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), General Felimon Santos Jr, was embroiled in controversy when he requested the Chinese Embassy in Manila to help secure Covid-19 medications for other top generals.

In his letter leaked by the media, Santos, just weeks after recovering from Covid-19 himself, requested the Chinese Embassy’s “assistance in the procurement of 5 boxes of Carrimycin tablets which is available only in China.”

“I believe that the said medicine helped in my recovery from the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) infection and I intend to give the said drug to my close friends who have also been infected,” Santos wrote, though he claims the request was later “recalled” since the drug in question was not approved by relevant regulatory agencies.

Senator Ronald Dela Rosa, a former police chief and key Duterte ally, has defended Duterte’s apparent decision to introduce early mass vaccination among security personnel, especially the PSG. He said the decision was taken in order to protect the president even if this meant they served as a “guinea pig” for experimental and unproven vaccines.

In an official statement, the AFP spokesperson Major General Edgard Arevalo said that since the PSG “[is] primarily tasked to protect and secure the highest official of the land,” the early vaccination was justified.

“Because the safety of the President equates to national well-being, that security posture should necessarily include protecting the Commander-in-Chief from contracting the deadly virus from those he is constantly exposed to like the members of his security detail,” Arevalo said.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (in video screen) salutes along with soldiers during the 121st founding anniversary of Philippine army at the army headquarters in Manila on March 20, 2018. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

He praised the decision of security officials to “try the vaccine” for the benefit of the president and the country.

Duterte himself was blunter, stating “To me, it’s a matter of self-preservation. That’s just it.”

“Whatever be your objection, whatever be your criticisms, for it’s a matter of preservation,” Duterte said in his latest national briefing this week, rejecting calls by legislators and opposition leaders to investigate top PSG officials.

“I would like to call on Congress — I’m not pleading —what I only want is, in plain words: Do not tinker with the PSG. I am telling you as President: It’s a matter of self-preservation,” Duterte said.

“I will not elaborate on it. But do not force my hand to meddle into this because maybe I will not…I do not think that it would be good for you and for me. It would not be healthy for everybody,” the president added.