How Did President Duterte’s Guards Get Smuggled Covid Vaccines? Philippine Lawmakers Ask

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How Did President Duterte’s Guards Get Smuggled Covid Vaccines? Philippine Lawmakers Ask

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, here in the presidential palace in Manila last month, said Monday that he would defy any congressional attempt to investigate the vaccination of his security detail.

Photo: King rodriguez/ppd handout/Shutterstock

In September and October, members of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s security detail got Covid-19 vaccines. But no shots had been approved for use in the country—then or now.

Lawmakers are trying to figure out how the vaccines were smuggled in.

The scandal emerged after Mr. Duterte said last month that several members of a military unit tasked with his personal protection had been vaccinated without his knowing. Brig. Gen. Jesus Durante III, the unit’s commander, later said “a handful” of guards got the shots in September and October to protect the president from exposure to the virus.

Mr. Durante said the president learned of it only after the two required shots had been given, and that the unit acted without the help or approval of any other authority.

“We vaccinated ourselves,” he said in a televised interview. “It’s so easy.”

The political storm that followed triggered a probe by the National Bureau of Investigation and calls for a Senate inquiry. No Covid-19 vaccines have been approved by the Philippine Food and Drug Administration. The NBI and FDA didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Questions include how the shots entered the country, and where from, as the Philippines isn’t producing any vaccines domestically. In his remarks last month, Mr. Duterte said a number of people in the Philippines had taken a vaccine developed by Chinese state-owned drugmaker Sinopharm, but in a speech on Monday he said he didn’t know the origin of the vaccine administered to his security personnel.

Sinopharm didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Sinopharm’s vaccine won provisional approval in China in late December—having been authorized for emergency use in July—after interim Phase 3 trial results showed an efficacy rate of 79%. Sinopharm said in November that doses had been administered to more than a million people in China.

The company is set to apply for emergency-use authorization in the Philippines this week, according to the Chinese embassy in Manila.

In his remarks Monday, Mr. Duterte told lawmakers to back off, saying the guards were doing their duty to protect him. He ordered the head of his security detail to ignore any summons to testify if Congress does decide to investigate and said he would advise his guards to “shut up” if questioned.

“I will not allow them for all of their good intentions to be brutalized in a hearing,” he said.

If the president invokes executive privilege to prevent the guards’ testimony, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said, lawmakers would seek other sources to aid any investigation.

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Outspoken Duterte critic Sen. Leila de Lima filed a resolution on Tuesday calling for a senate inquiry. The former justice secretary, who has been jailed for almost four years on drug-related charges that human-rights groups say are politically motivated, called the matter an issue of national security. The head of the legislative unit for Ms. de Lima’s office said senators would decide whether to proceed with hearings after the resolution is referred on Monday.

“This matter needs to be resolved once and for all and we cannot allow our top government officials to sanction illegal activities,” Ms. de Lima said by email. “Because if we ignore this, we would, in effect, be party to this unlawful behavior.”

The Philippines has suffered one of the worst Covid-19 outbreaks in Southeast Asia, recording almost half a million cases and more than 9,300 deaths. Authorities aim to vaccinate 60 million to 70 million of the nation’s 106 million people over two to five years, a pace limited by procurement and logistical challenges. Officials have signed just one vaccine deal—for 2.6 million doses of the one developed by AstraZeneca —but say more are coming.

As wealthier countries buy up supplies of Western drugmakers’ Covid-19 vaccines that are still in development, China and Russia are offering their fast-tracked shots to poorer nations. Here’s what they’re hoping to get in return. Illustration: Ksenia Shaikhutdinova

Write to Feliz Solomon at feliz.solomon@wsj.com

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