Lorenzana, AFP defend military chief's 'out of place' letter to Chinese envoy
MANILA, Philippines – The defense secretary and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) on Tuesday, April 28, both defended AFP chief of staff General Felimon Santos Jr for having written a letter to the Chinese ambassador for the procurement of an off-label drug to treat COVID-19.
In a statement, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said he "sees nothing wrong" with Santos' action, although the letter "may have been out of place" because it should have been coursed through the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).
Noting that Santos, who took the drug Carrimycin when he was sick with COVID-19, had intended to obtain the tablets for his infected friends, Lorenzana asked, "What is wrong with wanting to help those infected with COVID-19?"
"[Santos] had not violated any regulations nor imperiled the security of the country," said the defense chief, adding, "Let us put the matter to rest."
In a separate statement, AFP spokesperson Brigadier General Edgard Arevalo confirmed that the letter is "authentic," but said Santos "acted in good faith."
"We do not see any conflict of interest. This is about medicine that the AFP chief feels can save people's lives. That is more compelling," Arevalo added.
Lorenzana and Arevalo pointed out that Santos withdrew the letter when he learned that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had not yet approved the use of Carrimycin to treat symptoms of COVID-19.
Santos earlier confirmed to Rappler that he did send a letter to Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian asking assistance to procure 5 boxes of Carrimycin tablets, and that he afterwards "recalled" it upon learning the drug had no approval from the FDA.
The military chief said he planned to give the tablets to his "close friends" who were also infected with the coronavirus. Santos himself tested positive for COVID-19 on March 27, but had recovered by April 5. He said he had no symptoms.
Carrimycin is only available in China. Santos said a Filipino-Chinese friend gave him the medicine, and he took it with the permission of his doctors.
'The specter of death'
Lorenzana said he spoke with Santos on Monday night, April 27, after the letter was leaked to the media. Santos owned up to the letter and explained his reasons, Lorenzana said during the government's televised Laging Handa briefing on Tuesday.
"Let us consider General Santos' experience, how he got infected by a deadly virus, and the specter of death was there. He suffered anguish and stress," Lorenzana added.
"[Santos] believes he has been cured by the medicine and it was effective. He doesn't want to keep the cure to himself and would like to share his experience to some of his friends," Arevalo said in his statement.
Because Santos obtained Carrimycin from a friend from the Filipino-Chinese community, and the drug is reportedly controlled by the Chinese government, Santos thought it was best to request it from the Chinese envoy, Lorenzana said.
"[Santos] sought assistance from the ambassador through [China's] Defense and Armed Forces Attaché to the Philippines to procure the tablets since it is available only in China. In essence, he also expects to get competent advice from someone of his stature and information networks to either validate or negate his experience with the medicine," Arevalo said.
Santos earlier claimed the letter to Huang was personal. However, the leaked photo showed the letter bore the AFP chief of staff's letterhead.
China and the West Philippine Sea
The news drew negative reactions from some people on social media, who noted China's constant violation of Philippine sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea.
They said that Santos, as the top general of the military tasked to protect the country's sovereignty, had no business talking to the Chinese envoy to obtain a personal favor, especially involving a drug that has not been approved by the Philippine government for use by coronavirus patients.
The DFA last week sent diplomatic protests to the Chinese embassy in Manila over two incidents involving the West Philippine Sea.
One is China's recent creation of a new administrative district covering the Spratly Islands, including the Philippines' Kalayaan Island Group (KIG), naming the area as part of its Hainan province.
The second incident happened on February 17. A Chinese warship had aimed its guns on the Philippine Navy’s corvette, the BRP Conrado Yap, while it was on patrol in the vicinity of the KIG.
China has maintained a military and paramilitary presence in the West Philippine Sea, which experts consider a "gray zone" tactic to virtually control the strategic waterway without sparking overt conflict with the Philippines and other claimant states.
These violate the July 2016 ruling by an international arbitral tribunal, which affirmed the Philippines' sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea, and debunked China's sweeping "9-dash line" claim over nearly the entire sea. – Rappler.com