Health authorities on Tuesday said they would expand their investigation of an unauthorized vaccine that was smuggled into the country to include newspaper columnist Ramon Tulfo who recently disclosed that he had received two shots made by a Chinese state-owned pharmaceutical company.
Tulfo said in his Manila Times column last Saturday that he already got two doses of the vaccine produced by China National Pharmaceutical Group, popularly known as Sinopharm, along with members of the Presidential Security Group (PSG) and “some government officials” in October last year.
“He will be investigated, because it is not good that there are individuals who get vaccinated without going through the correct process, and with an unauthorized vaccine,” Eric Domingo, director general of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), said in Wednesday’s Laging Handa briefing.
The FDA is already investigating the PSG for using a vaccine it had not yet approved. Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque has said the shots for President Duterte’s bodyguards were made by Sinopharm and donated as a “token.” He did not identify the donor.
Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said in a separate briefing that the ongoing investigation of the illegal vaccine would now include Tulfo. “If there are violations, there will be sanctions,” she said.
No PSG explanation
Domingo said the PSG still had not responded to letters from the FDA and the Department of Health (DOH) demanding an explanation for its illegal use of the Sinopharm vaccine.
Sinopharm said that as of December last year, its vaccine was shown to be 79.34 percent effective in protecting people against the coronavirus.
Tulfo, who was appointed by Mr. Duterte as his special envoy to China, said he “risked” his life when he got the shots so he could test the efficacy of the Sinopharm vaccine as he wanted to be one of its distributors in the country.
He said in an interview with One News PH three days after he published his column that he did not see any “conflict of interest” in trying to get authority as a distributor while being a special envoy. Besides, he said, the title was only “honorific” and that he was still a private citizen.
A source at the Department of Foreign Affairs told the Inquirer that even if Tulfo still held that title, the laws of the country applied to him as a Filipino here in the country.
Reacting to reports of Tulfo’s actions but not referring to him by name, Aileen Lizada, a commissioner of the Civil Service Commission (CSC), said “civil servants are not above the law.”
“Truly, the recent disclosure made by a civil servant about using an unregistered product and the plan to be a dealer of Sinopharm puts to test a civil servant’s duty to the public,” Lizada said in a statement.
“While the said civil servant is beyond disciplinary authority of the CSC being a presidential appointee, it is incumbent upon him, as with any other civil servant, to act and conduct himself in a manner worthy of being called a public servant,” she said.
Lizada cited Republic Act No. 9711, or the Food and Drug Administration Act of 2009, and Republic Act No. 8203, or the special counterfeit law, which require registration before any drug or product could be used by the public.
At present, the FDA had given an emergency use authorization (EUA) to only three makers of COVID-19 vaccines—Pfizer-BioNTech, AstraZeneca and Sinovac.
It also allowed the PSG to use 10,000 doses of Sinopharm under a compassionate use license, but this would not be retroactive and would not cover last year’s illegal vaccinations.
House Deputy Minority Leader and Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate on Wednesday urged House leaders to start its own probe of the “VIP vaccination” of uniformed personnel and public officials following Tulfo’s disclosures in his column.
“It appears that it is not only the Presidential Security Group that has undergone VIP vaccination but other government officials as well using smuggled vaccines, based on Tulfo’s confession,” Zarate said.
The Makabayan bloc’s House Resolution No. 1451 seeking a congressional inquiry into the “VIP vaccination” has not been calendared for hearing.
“Investigating this anomaly would also put to rest rumors that even Cabinet members and members of Congress were also among those already inoculated along with Tulfo,” he said.
Bayan Muna Rep. Ferdinand Gaite said Tulfo’s use of smuggled vaccines should be grounds to deny him any license to distribute Sinopharm vaccines.
“There are no vaccines for the people but the Duterte administration’s allies just smuggle vaccines and enjoy VIP vaccination. Instead of being ashamed of doing something wrong, he bragged about it,” said the lawmaker.
Gaite warned against letting Tulfo go scot-free with his admission and that the people should not just be told to “move on” from the issue.
“Health-care workers and front-liners are still waiting to be vaccinated. Meanwhile, Duterte’s men are smuggling vaccines left and right and are being secretly vaccinated. The government blames their shortcomings on the supply chain, but apparently, they are not encountering problems in the supply of smuggled vaccines,” he said in calling for a probe of Tulfo’s claims.
Domingo also bucked Tulfo’s claim that the FDA was blocking the entry of Sinopharm’s vaccine into the country.
Sinopharm, which has no local Philippine distributor, has not submitted an application for either an EUA or a compassionate use permit, he said.
“Sinopharm asked us who can apply for an EUA, but until now they have not sent any application,” he said. “We accept all applications freely.”
Roque on Wednesday said Malacañang would be leaving it up to the FDA to investigate Tulfo’s claims.
“In this time of pandemic, I understand that many want protection. But what we’re saying to everyone is: let us wait for it to undergo the process for our own interest,” he said at a press briefing.
“We are waiting for the action of the FDA on these things,” Roque added.
Asked whether there was conflict of interest between Tulfo’s actions and being a special envoy, he said, “We have no opinion whatsoever. We leave that to the Ombudsman.”
President Duterte preferred the Sinopharm vaccine for him and his family and spoke directly on the phone with a representative of the company to get “samples” of the shots, according to Tulfo.
But Roque said he could not confirm Tulfo’s account, adding that he did not hear the conversation between the columnist and the President as he was in another room.
“I’m not belying anything that Mon Tulfo said. What I am saying is, that’s his article, please ask him, not me,” he said.
—With reports from Jerome Aning, Julie M. Aurelio, Nikka G. Valenzuela, Tina G. Santos and Inquirer Research
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