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Black market for illegal coronavirus vaccines thriving in the Philippines

Vials of Sinovac Biotech's CoronaVac SARS-CoV-2 vaccine on Sept. 24, 2020 in Beijing.

NICOLAS BOCK/BLOOMBERG

By REGINE CABATO | The Washington Post | Published: January 16, 2021

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MANILA, Philippines — The message in late December wasn't meant for Jesse, a newcomer working at an offshore gambling operator in the Philippines. But her eyes fell on a group chat on her colleague's unattended phone, detailing plans to administer coronavirus vaccines this month to her Chinese co-workers.

Her colleague had sent their peers a reminder "to make sure when they get vaccinated, they have to wear long sleeves . . . to cover the cotton after the injection," said Jesse, a Filipino who chose to go by her nickname for fear of reprisal. "And you're not supposed to say anything to other employees."

No coronavirus vaccine has been approved for general use in the Philippines, nor is one expected to arrive, officially, until at least February. It is illegal to import unauthorized pharmaceuticals.

But soaring demand among Chinese workers, many of them employed in the Philippines' lucrative online casinos catering to gamblers in China, is driving a black market where vaccine doses are sold for many times the standard $30 price in China.

The underground distribution exposes pandemic inequalities and problems with immunization drives in places plagued by corruption and patronage. In Southeast Asia, where there are millions of overseas Chinese workers, it also threatens to heighten long-standing resentment between local communities and the Chinese population.

The bootleg vaccines aren't limited to Chinese workers. In late December, President Rodrigo Duterte said members of the Philippine military had already taken the coronavirus vaccine from Sinopharm, a Chinese state-owned pharmaceutical company. Members of the president's security group admitted they had received the shots, angering ordinary Filipinos who are grappling with one of the region's worst outbreaks yet lack access to vaccines. (Sinopharm's vaccine has been approved for general use in China, but not in the Philippines; the company did not respond to requests for comment.)

"Time and again, health workers are being neglected," said Reigner Antiquera, president of the Alliance of Young Nurse Leaders and Advocates. "Nurses, doctors, and other health workers should be prioritized in receiving these vaccines because they are the most at risk and exposed to the virus."

It is unclear how unauthorized vaccines fell into the hands of those close to Duterte, whose centerpiece domestic policy has been a war on illegal drugs. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana confirmed to local media that the doses were smuggled in but said this was "justified" because Duterte's security team had to keep the 75-year-old leader safe. Harry Roque, the presidential spokesman, said the vaccines were a donation, without identifying the source.

In a Jan. 4 speech, Duterte told his security team to "shut up" and not cooperate if Senate lawmakers probed the affair as part of an existing inquiry examining the government's vaccine program. The Senate president, Vicente Sotto, later said the issue was not on the agenda.

These developments raised even more questions about the scale of illegal vaccine distribution in the Philippines, and how those in positions of power were able to procure shots before front-line health workers.

"It's a free-for-all and recipe for disaster," said Ronald Mendoza, dean of the School of Government at Ateneo de Manila University.

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Teresita Ang See, a Filipino-Chinese civic leader, said an estimated 100,000 Chinese nationals in the country have already been vaccinated, citing advertisements on Chinese media and information from gambling industry worker chat groups. Fewer than half a million Chinese nationals were in the country as of September 2020, according to immigration data.

The vaccine could fetch between $200 and $300 on the black market, presumably for both doses, she said.

Jesse, the online casino worker, said the contents of the gambling workers' chat group indicated that her Chinese colleagues would be administered the Pfizer vaccine, shipped in from China.

In an emailed statement Tuesday, Pfizer did not address questions about whether it had shipped doses to the Philippines. The company said it was committed to engaging with the Philippine government to make its coronavirus vaccine available in the country. On Thursday, regulators approved the Pfizer vaccine for emergency use.

Andrea Domingo, who chairs the regulatory Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation, said she had no knowledge of online casino operators immunizing their employees, and it should be "treated as a law enforcement matter."

As China rolls out its vaccines at home, Beijing has said it has also prioritized access for its nationals working overseas in critical fields such as military personnel, diplomats, construction and aircrews, along with some international students. But its distribution of vaccines across developing nations has raised suspicions that Beijing could use vaccines for political leverage in areas where it is trying to expand its influence.

"There seems a high risk that 'vaccine diplomacy' means using vaccines to buy off support from China-friendly politicians," Mendoza said.

A Philippines-based businessman who spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity, citing security reasons, said that he had been approached by Chinese businessmen from the online gambling industry about supplying the Sinopharm vaccine to their employees. The process, he said, entailed the buyer declaring the smuggled vaccines as supplements, before customs officials would relabel the shipment accordingly and approve the importation.

Would-be local distributors would have to agree to assume legal responsibility and sign a waiver committing not to resell the vaccine. The businessman said many groups were interested and it was a "decentralized operation." A copy of a waiver form seen by The Post did not contain identifying information about the company or companies involved.

A Philippine Bureau of Customs spokesman declined to comment, citing continuing inquiries by the country's Food and Drug Administration and National Bureau of Investigation, its FBI equivalent.

The Chinese Embassy in Manila did not respond to requests for comment. In a memo dated Oct. 31, it reminded its citizens "to stay alert against rumors and refrain from taking unauthorized vaccine shots so as to avoid being taken in by scams and endanger personal safety."

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The Philippines, which has had one of the harshest and longest lockdowns, is now approaching half a million coronavirus cases and almost 10,000 deaths. As local mayors in major cities close procurement deals with vaccine manufacturers, Duterte's critics are questioning what they see as a lack of central government planning and a willingness to turn a blind eye to illegal and potentially dangerous actions.

Jesus Durante, who heads Duterte's security group, maintained the vaccines they procured were safe, telling local broadcaster ABS-CBN that the team has "done our research." Online complaints from Chinese nationals about vaccine efficacy, however, point to the possibilities of ineffective storage or other mishaps - leading Ang See to express doubt that Duterte's security officials and Chinese nationals working in the Philippines were sourcing vaccines from the same supplier.

At least one cabinet official has taken the vaccine, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año told local media. Army chief Cirilito Sobejana also said he knew military officials who took the vaccine, though whether they are distinct from the security group is unclear. Duterte has said the vaccine came from Sinopharm, but officials under him, including Durante, have subsequently avoided identifying the drugmaker.

The episode could encourage public reliance on the black market, Mendoza said. "[These officials] did something unofficial and unregulated, and they're making the case that it was safe," he said, pointing out that the unregulated market includes fakes.

Alarmed by the spectacle of senior figures taking unapproved vaccines, officials at the Philippines' Health Department and FDA held a news conference Dec. 29 in which they reiterated that it was illegal to import, distribute or promote unauthorized doses.

Ang See said the government was "dragging its feet" on approving and sourcing vaccines, and called on it to review its policy and speed up authorizations. The slow pace, she said, "gives a weapon to unscrupulous and greedy businessmen to circumvent the law because there is a demand."

The government said Monday that it had secured 25 million doses of Sinovac's coronavirus vaccine, and that an initial batch of 50,000 doses would arrive by next month. With Pfizer's vaccine approved for emergency use,deals are in the works with other vaccine makers, including AstraZeneca and Moderna, pending regulatory approval.

Risa Hontiveros, an opposition senator, urged Beijing to investigate the entry of unauthorized drugs into the Philippines. "Given China's strength in security and surveillance, it's impossible for them not to know who is behind these black-market vaccines," she said in a statement on Monday.

Jesse, meanwhile, would prefer to let health workers and vulnerable people get the vaccine first. She said she was put off by what she saw as entitlement to the vaccine among Chinese colleagues.

"There's a different set of rules for locals," said Jesse, "and a different set of rules for [the Chinese]."

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The Washington Post's Shibani Mahtani in Hong Kong, Lyric Li in Seoul and Alicia Chen in Taipei contributed to this report.