POSTSCRIPT / December 29, 2020 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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‘No US vaccine, no US troops allowed’

PRESIDENT Duterte’s “No US vaccine, no (VFA) stay” deal is tough for everyone, including his diplomats caught in the transition to the Biden administration who are now working like purchase agents chasing Covid-19 vaccines for the boss back in Manila.

What prompted the President to threaten the United States on Saturday to deliver at least 20 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines or see the 1999 Phl-US Visiting Forces Agreement terminated after his six-month notice?

Was Duterte informed by his gofers following up the request for US-produced vaccines (such as the Pfizer-BioNTech brand) that delivery can be made only late next year after domestic US requirements and earlier orders of other countries have been met?

Has there been pressure from China to decide quickly about placing a big order for China-made vaccines such as Sinovac that has been criticized as too expensive despite its comparatively low efficacy rating of only 50 percent?

More than 20 countries, some of them neighbors of the Philippines, have started to roll out their mass vaccination programs while the Duterte administration is still asking around where and how it can nail down deliveries.

A new virus strain first reported in the United Kingdom, meanwhile, has leaped to several European nations, Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Canada and Jordan, fueling fears of new pandemic surges. The variant, reportedly more contagious, prompted 50 or so countries to restrict arrivals from the UK.

In the same tardy manner it locked down after the coronavirus leaped a year ago from central China to infect the entire world, the administration as of this writing is again taking its time in barring travelers from areas where the variants have been reported.

Despite efforts of international agencies and private foundations to help ensure that countries with limited resources get their fair share of the vaccines, the race has been going in favor of rich nations and those with patriotic leaders acting decisively.

The Pfizer-BioNTech combine that developed the first vaccine to be given US emergency use approval, and Moderna that also gained EUA, are not American government agencies but private drug firms.

Surely, Duterte knows this. Then why did he hurl the Vaccine vs VFA challenge to official Washington? Why did he announce the dare/bluff in a televised meeting instead of sending his emissaries, who are known for their skill and mettle, to quietly work on it?

Then there is the China detail that has dominated Covid-19 talk since Duterte promised on several occasions that he would gift Filipinos with a vaccine by December (this month that is about to end).

Beijing is poised reportedly to receive 100 million doses of a Covid-19 vaccine from German company BioNTech next year. The firm has been developing its mRNA-based vaccine with Pfizer globally, while partnering with Fosun Pharma of Shanghai.

Is China planning to use the imported vaccine, rated at 95-percent efficacy, for selected recipients, while distributing its local vaccines, rated as low as 50 percent, to its masses and foreign clients like the Philippines?

Is Duterte moving to torpedo the procurement of US vaccines and create an opening for favored Chinese vaccines?

In his meeting with some Cabinet members and invited experts, Duterte disclosed without being asked that some Philippine troopers have already been injected vaccines made by China’s Sinopharm.

Addressing Dr. Eric Domingo, director-general of the Food and Drug Administration, Duterte said: “I have to tell the truth. I will not foist a lie. Many (soldiers) have been vaccinated… for the select few, not all soldiers, because it is not yet policy.”

We assume that the vaccination was part of clinical trials similar to those conducted by Sinopharm in other countries. The FDA chief said commercial or mass use of the Chinese vaccine has not been approved.

Duterte was talking about the accountability of his vaccine czar, retired general Carlito Galvez Jr., when he suddenly railed against Americans without provocation. He said:

“Do not believe in that shit America delivering kaagad. Hindi nga niya ma-deliver sa kanilang lugar, dito pa? Itong Amerikano talaga. I’ve been in government, I’ve dealt with them many times, and that’s why naging cynic na ako sa kanila… If America wants to help – deliver! Stop talking. What we need is the vaccine, not your verbose speeches.”

In playing the VFA card against the US, Duterte used the pandemic as leverage to gain rush delivery of at least 20 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines, part of the 130 million doses (at two shots per person) needed to achieve herd immunity of the 109-million population.

Philippine diplomats have been talking to State Secretary Mike Pompeo. Although he has promised to help, his clout may have been diminished by his being on the way out together with President Trump. Policy moves will have to wait for the incoming Biden administration.

In such a slippery situation, a tactic like threatening to scrap the VFA may not be enough to swing the deal that Duterte wants. It could even turn out that Manila needs the agreement more than Washington does.

Duterte served on Feb. 11 a notice to terminate the VFA, a pact that basically defines the status of forces of the two allies when they are temporarily posted in the other country. A key provision spells out criminal jurisdiction involving erring military personnel.

That first notice of termination that should take effect after 180 days was later suspended by Duterte when the US reinstated the canceled visa of his former national police chief, now senator, Bato dela Rosa.

His playing hardball and suspending (later resuming) the countdown have made the termination so confusing that we lost track of when it would take effect. Our guess is that if the countdown were resumed as threatened, the agreement would expire middle of next year.

Before termination, however, there could be any number of supervening events — including even Duterte’s vacating the presidency – that would make speculations, well, speculative indeed.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of December 29, 2020)

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