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The Philippine government began looking into reports of alleged selling of government-procured COVID-19 vaccines, as officials threatened criminal charges against both buyers and sellers.
The Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) said on Friday, May 21, it would ask the Philippine National Police (PNP) to investigate the alleged selling of government-procured COVID-19 vaccines.
In an interview with state-run PTV-4 on Monday, May 24, Metropolitan Manila Development Authority Chairman Benhur Abalos said individuals who offer vaccine slots for a fee to netizens could be slapped with estafa or direct bribery charges, among others.
“I warn you, the full extent of the law will be applied here,” said Abalos.
Abalos on Monday warned that those who bought the vaccine slots may also be held criminally liable.
“Doon sa mga pribado na gustong magpabakuna, madedemanda din siya (Private individuals who bought vaccine shots would also be sued),” he said. “They are a principal by inducement.”
Twitter went abuzz on Friday after some netizens shared that they were offered by some people claiming to have connections with local government units (LGUs) to buy vaccine slots.
Las Piñas resident Norman Rabaya, who posted one of the tweets that gained traction, told Rappler it was a classmate who offered him a Pfizer vaccine slot in Mandaluyong in exchange for a fee of P12,000 ($250).
“This was really insulting to me as a taxpayer and a businessman,” he wrote on Twitter. “These vaccines should go to people who need them the most.”
Another post by entrepreneur Nina Ellaine showed her conversation with a person who tried to sell her a slot for vaccination. Her contact claimed to be connected with the LGUs of San Juan and Mandaluyong.
“Saw someone offering vaccines and asked my [staff] to inquire and just found out that they’re selling vaccine slots from LGUs,” she wrote. “Why are people still capitalizing on this?”
The DILG said the agency received a similar report on Friday afternoon.
“The vaccines procured by the government are inoculated at no expense to the individual and cannot be sold,” Interior Undersecretary Jonathan Malaya said.
Following instructions from the DILG, on Saturday, May 22, Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Police General Guillermo Eleazar tasked the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group to lead the probe into the alleged sale of government-purchased vaccines and coordinate with LGUs on the matter.
“Iligal po ang pagbebenta ng COVID-19 vaccine na nagawaran lamang ng emergency use authorization o EUA ng ating Food and Drug Administration,” Eleazar said in a statement. “Nananatiling bawal ang pagbebenta ng mga bakuna kontra COVID dito sa atin, ayon na rin sa advisory ng FDA at ng National Task Force against COVID-19.”
(It is illegal to sell COVID vaccines that were just given an emergency use authorization or EUA by our Food and Drug Administration. It remains illegal in our country to sell vaccines against COVID-19, according to the advisory of the FDA and the National Task Force against COVID-19.)
According to initial reports, said Eleazar, vaccination slots are being offered in various areas for P10,000 to P15,000, depending on the COVID-19 vaccine brand. However, vaccination slots are free for the public, under the government’s vaccination program.
The public can report incidents of selling of vaccination slots to the PNP through its E-Sumbong complaint monitoring and referral system, Eleazar said.
Local governments react
The city governments of San Juan and Mandaluyong distanced themselves from the alleged illegal sale of COVID-19 vaccine doses that were in the hands of LGUs.
San Juan Mayor Francis Zamora said those selling vaccine slots while claiming to have a contact within the LGU were “propagating a scam which members of the San Juan vaccination team are not a part of.”
“We have reached out to the individual who posted this so we can take necessary actions against this person claiming to have access to our vaccination program for a fee,” he said in a statement.
Mandaluyong Mayor Carmelita Abalos meanwhile reiterated that all vaccine slots of the city were offered for free.
“Kung sino man ang may alam na impormasyon tungkol sa paniningil ng bayad para sa bakuna…maaaring ipagbigay-alam sa aming tanggapan,” Abalos said. “Makakaasa po kayo na kaagad nating maaaksyunan ang inyong reklamo.”
(Whoever has information about the alleged selling of vaccines, please reach out to us. Rest assured that your complaint will be dealt with immediately.)
In a statement on Saturday, the National Task Force (NTF) Against COVID-19 said it was “deeply concerned” with the reports on illicit sales of COVID-19 vaccines, and that it was investigating the matter.
The NTF reiterated that selling vaccines or priority slots is deemed illegal and punishable by law. The task force also supported Zamora and Abalos’ distancing from the activities.
“It is our hope that these local leaders will serve as an example to their counterparts throughout the country, and encourage them to take decisive action when the health and welfare of their constituents are at stake,” the NTF said.
“And for those who are engaged in the unauthorized sale of anti-COVID vaccines, we ask you to stop what you are doing. The long arm of the law will soon catch up on you,” the task force added.
Reports of alleged under-the-table sale of COVID-19 vaccines come as only select sectors are allowed to get the life-saving jabs since the Philippines’ immunization drive against the coronavirus started in March.
These sectors include health workers, senior citizens, persons with comorbidities, and governors and mayors.
Economic frontliners and indigent Filipinos may be inoculated “after the month of May or when we have a steady supply,” vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr. said on May 18.
As of May 18, some 2.5 million Filipinos have received their first COVID-19 vaccine dose, according to the Department of Health. – Rappler.com