IT CAME straight from the horse's mouth. Last December 26, President Rodrigo Duterte announced in a public address that "almost all" soldiers have been inoculated with the Chinese anti-COVID-19 vaccine Sinopharm, which, along with all other vaccines has yet to be approved as the law requires by the Philippines' Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
This revelation during the Christmas holidays gained the treatment it deserved on the front pages as it led TV news. Government has yet to roll out its vaccine program, and the questions raised by this controversial slip further damaged public confidence in the government's approach to vaccination.
Administration officials were quick to speak out, in an attempt at dismissing the significance of the president's words and to dispel whatever public reaction might put the president in a bad light. Because soldiers were involved, the military also joined the chorus.
The result was a muddled narrative which did not help erase suspicion that once again the leaders of the country had something to hide. Media picked up every statement, trying to sort out what might have happened. No one in government denied that some of the president's close-in security detail and an unidentified Cabinet member had been vaccinated as early as September 2020. It was also established that the FDA and the Health department were not in any way involved in their vaccination. The Bureau of Customs was not aware that vaccines had been imported into the country.
But the media failed to establish that there was wrongdoing, except to cite FDA regulations on the administration of anti-COVID vaccines which clearly the clandestine inoculations flouted. Reporting what every official who was willing to be quoted said, the news accounts followed government's lead. Government sources insisted that the public should let the issue pass, accept that there was no breaking of the law, and that the willingness of soldiers to be vaccinated was a sign of their dedication to duty.
The coverage did not focus on the paramount issue of public safety which should have been the primary concern, since the vaccines in question had not been evaluated sufficiently in accordance with the country's regulations on new vaccines. The efficacy of the vaccine in question had also been found to be only 60 per cent.
CMFR monitored the coverage of six Manila-based broadsheets (Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, Manila Bulletin, The Manila Times, Daily Tribune, Manila Standard), four primetime news programs (ABS-CBN 2's TV Patrol, GMA-7's 24 Oras, TV5's Frontline Pilipinas and CNN Philippines' News Night), the online counterparts of these broadsheets and channels, and independent online news sites from December 26, 2020 to January 8, 2021.
Duterte's men drive coverage
Instead of setting their own agenda for getting at the facts of the matter, the media scrambled to report the statements of government officials, among them Armed Forces Spokesperson Edgard Arevalo, Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque, Presidential Security Group (PSG) commander Jesus Durante, and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.
Speaking on different days, these men sustained a single narrative: yes, there had been vaccinations, but the fact that the soldiers were willing to take risks to keep the president safe from COVID-19 cannot be questioned. In merely repeating these claims, the media submitted to government's lead of absolving the president of any blame, and to dismiss suspicions of wrongdoing.
By speaking with such caution, a line was crossed that threatened public safety. Durante confirmed that members of the PSG administered the vaccine themselves, refusing to identify who these were nor to divulge who had provided the vaccine.
The president himself sealed the cover up when he announced that he had instructed the PSG to ignore any summons served by the Senate, which planned to probe the incident.
Curiously, vaccine czar Carlito Galvez was nowhere in the news coverage. Reports did not say whether the press even attempted to question the official, whose position would have indicated the degree of secrecy that shrouded the episode.
Only Undersecretary Eric Domingo, the director general of the FDA, was consistent in saying that the distribution, importation and administration of unregistered vaccines are illegal, although anyone who received it voluntarily has no criminal liability. The regulation of drugs and substances is primarily and precisely to assure their safety for public consumption. Domingo was clear about this as he reiterated that no COVID-19 vaccine has been issued an emergency use authorization (EUA) in the Philippines.
Safety issue sidelined
The FDA's EUA framework is stringent in its requirements, which include clinical trial data and results, proper product labeling that includes instructions for storage and usage, and a risk management plan.
Even vaccines approved for emergency use still have to comply with the above rules, among them the monitoring of the inoculated. Without tracking these persons, there is no way to assure that the members of the PSG did not suffer any adverse side effects or illnesses, or that, if the vaccine was ineffective, those who may have been infected with COVID-19 did not unwittingly spread it to others.
The public should be able to understand and appreciate the reasons for the FDA rules. Obviously, officials who dismissed these concerns were ignorant of the issues or chose simply to ignore them. Unfortunately, media themselves lacked sufficient awareness to be able to ask the right questions.
TV Patrol, 24 Oras and Philstar.com referred to health and immunization professionals who explained the risks of using unapproved vaccines and the administration of such by unqualified persons. But their expert opinions were drowned out by the government's resolve to stick to its propaganda line of cheering the "heroism" of the PSG. Rappler also correctly asked about the secret vaccination: "Why were health officials not consulted?"
News coverage lacked the necessary critical notes to emphasize the blatant disregard for public safety. Editorials and opinion pieces were more willing to underscore the potential damage to the government's vaccination program and the public confidence in vaccines.
Indeed, secrecy and controversy have already hounded the government's vaccine program, from Duterte's preference for vaccines from China or Russia to the accusation that Health Secretary Francisco Duque "dropped the ball" in the procurement of US-manufactured Pfizer vaccines. The inoculation of the PSG and the still unnamed Cabinet member is only the latest addition to the list.
Media's approach in covering this incident targeted wrongdoing but did not actually initiate investigative methods to verify this. Their failure to focus on the safety issue revealed the inadequacy of their own understanding of the importance of the mandated principles of vaccine management.
The news accounts could have laid out with greater clarity the failure of the administration to observe the rules set by the FDA. Reporters need to get over their discomfort about writing news that merely records what was wrong without providing its meaning and the needed analysis and interpretation.