Philippines’ Duterte Threatens to Expel U.S. Military if Companies Do Not Offer Vaccines

Philippine's President Rodrigo Duterte delivers his speech to overseas Filipino workers (OFW) that arrived in Manila from Kuwait are at the Manila International Airport on February 13, 2018. Kuwait's foreign minister on February 13 condemned what he called an "escalation" by Manila after the Philippines expanded a ban on its …
NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines threatened to cut ties between his nation’s military and America’s – in existence since the Philippines declared independence from Spain – this weekend if Washington did not ship Manila at least 20 million doses of experimental vaccines for the Chinese coronavirus.

Duterte made the remark amid a brewing scandal over his government’s failure to obtain significant quantities of any vaccine or vaccine candidate. According to the Philippine Star, Manila held talks with Pfizer, which developed the first FDA-approved coronavirus vaccine in the United States, to import 10 million doses, but could not come to an agreement, leaving the Philippines empty-handed. Duterte’s government reportedly secured a deal with Pfizer competitor Moderna following that incident.

Duterte has disparaged America’s ability to develop a functional pharmaceutical and offered to take “Sputnik V,” an experimental Russian medical cocktail, instead, but has failed to do so as, at 75, he is too old to be considered a safe candidate for the product.

Duterte’s administration caused a popular outcry this weekend after the revelation surfaced that, despite Duterte’s failure to secure large quantities of any vaccine candidate and the Philippines Food and Drug Administration (FDA) failing to approve any, several senior politicians have received doses against the Chinese coronavirus.

The Philippines has documented nearly half a million cases of Chinese coronavirus since the pandemic began in late 2019. Of these patients, 9,214 people have died as of Monday.

Duterte threatened the United States during a meeting late on Saturday.

“If they can’t deliver at least 20 million doses at a minimum, they better get out,” Duterte said, apparently addressing all American pharmaceutical companies in general. “No vaccine, no stay here.”

While demanding millions of doses of American vaccines, Duterte took a moment during the meeting to claim America is incompetent at developing vaccines.

“Do not believe in that shit about America that they can deliver immediately,” Duterte declared. “I’ve been with [the] government – I have dealt with them many times.”

Several Philippine senators reacted to Duterte’s remarks with embarrassment.

“National interest must be the only consideration for a VFA [Visiting Forces Agreement],” Senator Richard Gordon asserted in a statement on Monday. “‘No vaccine, no VFA’ threat upon the U.S. is totally inappropriate, mercenary and lessens the dignity of the Philippines.”

Senator Panfilo Lacson accused Duterte of “treating the Americans like a bunch of yokels” and lamented that berating Washington may result in Filipinos having to resort to using Coronavac, which initial tests suggest is much less effective than the Pfizer or Moderna options.

“What is more unfortunate is that we had a good chance to procure vaccines early from the US, but someone from our side dropped the ball and has yet to be held accountable up to this day,” Lacson added, insisting there had to be a “more diplomatic or at least a better way of asking a longtime ally to help us avail of the vaccines for our people without sounding like we are blackmailing our way into it.”

At press time, Duterte’s government has secured 2.6 million vaccine candidate doses from AstraZeneca, which developed a candidate with the University of Oxford. The Philippine Star noted that those vaccines are a “donation from the private sector.” The Philippines has a population of 107 million people.

Moderna will reportedly add another 25 million doses to the meager supply currently secured, according to the Philippines embassy in America. Unlike Astrazeneca, the Moderna experimental vaccine is currently in wide distribution in the United States, receiving an emergency use authorization from the American FDA.

Japan’s Nikkei detailed the collapse of the Pfizer deal this week:

Earlier this month, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said Manila had secured 10 million doses of Pfizer vaccine with the help of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The vaccine would have been ready for shipment in January 2021 but the deal fell through after Health Secretary Francisco Duque supposedly “dropped the ball.”

However, Duque denied the allegation and said there had never been a firm commitment from the U.S. pharmaceutical giant.

The Philippines is also reportedly negotiating for doses of “Sputnik V” – which international medical experts have warned has received insufficient testing for mass distribution – and CoronaVac, an experimental vaccine candidate from Chinese company Sinovac. Duterte claimed that “Sputnik V” would be a free donation from Russia in August, but no new updates have surfaced regarding its status.

The Philippines’ failure to properly acquire vaccine candidate doses led to even more outrage on Monday when Interior and Local Government Secretary Eduardo Año confirmed that, despite the Philippine FDA failing to approve any vaccine candidate and the government “dropping the ball” on acquiring doses for the general public, members of Duterte’s cabinet and high ranking military officials had already received vaccine candidate doses.

Año was responding to Duterte revealing on Saturday that a “select few” senior government and military members had received a vaccine candidate. He did not specify which, though the Philippine Inquirer said the candidate was a Chinese-made one.

“Almost all of the soldiers have been stabbed,” Duterte said this weekend, in Filipino. Año claimed that those receiving the product were “frontliners” with the president and that the product used had received an “emergency use authorization” from the government.

The FDA has not granted any in that country and only one company, Pfizer, has applied for one.

Following Año’s declaration, Philippine Army chief Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana similarly confirmed that soldiers had received vaccine candidates on Monday. Sobejana said that Duterte personally made the decision, but also did not disclose what product was administered or to whom.

There is no evidence at press time that health workers were among those receiving the vaccine candidates.

FDA Director-General Eric Domingo responded to popular outrage about the use of unapproved drugs by claiming that taking an unapproved drug is not illegal.

“There’s nothing we can do about it, it’s a personal choice. But it is illegal to import an unregistered drug, to distribute it, and for a doctor or a medical practitioner or any health personnel to administer unlicensed drugs in the country,” he told CNN Philippines.

He vowed that the FDA would go after individuals trafficking in alleged vaccines from China, presumably not including Duterte.

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