By Karen Lema and Neil Jerome Morales
MANILA (Reuters) - Some Philippine soldiers and cabinet ministers have already received COVID-19 vaccine injections, officials said on Monday, despite an absence of regulatory approval that the country's health ministry said was vital to ensure safety.
Interior minister, Eduardo Ano, said some cabinet members have already received COVID-19 vaccines and army chief, Lieutenant General Cirilito Sobejana, said some troops had been vaccinated but the number was not large. Neither said what brand of vaccine was administered.
The health ministry in a statement said all vaccines must first be evaluated by experts, and "only vaccines which have been approved and found to be safe should be administered".
Food and Drug Administration head Rolando Enrique Domingo said Philippine regulators have yet to approve any COVID-19 vaccine, making any importation, distribution and sale of one illegal.
Domingo warned the public that unapproved vaccines exposed them to "all sorts of dangers" and told CNN Philippines that side effects were possible "especially if you don't know how these things have been handled".
So far only Pfizer has applied for emergency use approval of its COVID-19 vaccine in the Philippines, while Sinovac, Gamaleya, Johnson & Johnson's Janssen and Clover's late-stage trial applications have yet to be approved.
Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said the ministry had no information about the soldiers' vaccination and military spokesman Colonel Edgard Arevalo said there had been no inoculation sanctioned by the armed forces leadership.
Arevalo said the recipients included members of a special security unit assigned to President Rodrigo Duterte.
Duterte has not been vaccinated, according to his spokesman, Harry Roque, who said he had no problem with soldiers being given the shots and protecting themselves.
Duterte during a televised meeting with health officials on Saturday said "almost all" soldiers have already been inoculated.
He said "many", without identifying who, in the Philippines had received a COVID-19 vaccine developed by China National Pharmaceutical Group (Sinopharm).
Sinopharm could not be immediately reached for comment.
Asked if the soldiers' vaccination was authorised by the president's office, Sobejana said: "Well of course, our president is our commander-in-chief."
(Additional reporting by Roxanne Liu in Beijing; Editing by Martin Petty)