Duterte defends soldiers who got illegal COVID vaccine from China

President’s spokesman also brushes off report that 100,000 Chinese online gambling workers in the Philippines received smuggled vaccine.

The Philippine government is adamant that Filipino soldiers did no break any law when they injected themselves with unauthorised coronavirus smuggled from China [File: Dondi Tawatao/Reuters]

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has rejected calls for a Senate investigation into the revelation that Filipino soldiers guarding him had already been inoculated with an unauthorised coronavirus vaccine smuggled from China.

Duterte ordered the Presidential Security Group (PSG) soldiers late on Monday night to “not obey the summons” and “stay put in the barracks”, saying that he will not allow them “for all their good intention, to be brutalised” before a Senate probe.

Following the president’s pronouncement, the Armed Forces of the Philippines, which has jurisdiction over the PSG, announced on Tuesday morning that it is stopping its own probe into the criminal liability of the soldiers involved.

The president’s latest statement came amid additional revelations that aside from the Philippine military, at least 100,000 Chinese working in online gambling operations in the capital, Manila, had also received the illegal vaccine from China as early as November.

Regulators in the Philippines have yet to approve any of the COVID-19 vaccines being developed by Beijing, although Chinese laboratories have already begun to move ahead with vaccine trials domestically and in several other countries.

Beijing gave conditional approval to one of the vaccines trialled by Sinopharm on December 31 and is rolling it out as part of a mass vaccination campaign.

‘Gift’ from China

Earlier, Brigadier General Jesus Durante, the head of Duterte’s security, was forced to admit that several soldiers injected themselves with an unnamed vaccine from China as far back as September, citing their obligation to secure the president, while ignoring Philippine regulatory laws.

The general also said that Duterte was only informed of their decision later, although the president himself was the first to reveal in public that his security detail had already received a Chinese vaccine.

Durante, the general, did not reveal how the doses were obtained, although the president’s office said that the vaccine was offered as a “gift” from China, despite the prohibition on transport and shipment of unauthorised medicine.

Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has admitted that the drugs were smuggled into the country without his knowledge, but added that the PSG’s move was “justified”.

Duterte said on Monday that he is “prepared to defend my soldiers”, while praising their “loyalty and courage” amid the flurry of criticism over what legal observers and health experts called a clear violation of Philippine laws.

Duterte’s spokesman, Harry Roque, was also adamant that the soldiers broke no laws when they “risked their lives to protect our president”.

“The president is saluting the PSG for what they did,” Roque said, refusing to answer repeated questions if the secretive vaccination process was illegal.

Meanwhile, Roque brushed aside reports that at least 100,000 Chinese working in the Philippines had also been injected with the unauthorised vaccine from China.

“I don’t have any information. But if it is true, then good, as there will be 100,000 less possible carriers of COVID-19” in the country, Roque said.

Filipino-Chinese community leader Teresita Ang-See said on Monday that the vaccine used on the Chinese workers was the same as the one used on the Filipino soldiers and that it came through an “official channel”.

Many of the new Chinese migrant workers in the Philippines work in the multimillion-dollar online casinos, which mostly cater to gamblers in mainland China [File: Francis R Malasig/EPA]

“The vaccines given them were legitimate, legitimate sources, it came from official channel so I think it’s good,” Ang-See was quoted by news reports as saying.

“Why make it a secret this way especially if it’s official channel? We brought it to the attention of authorities because, for me, it’s OK that they get vaccinated, because we do not have much control with them.”

Ang-See, however, failed to acknowledge that no coronavirus vaccine has been given approval by the Philippine Food and Drug Administration.

According to Philippine labour statistics, an estimated 140,000 Chinese nationals had the authorisation to work in the country in 2019. Beijing said it began a programme to inoculate citizens working overseas in the middle of last year.

Source: Al Jazeera