Philippines seeks U.S. help on data recorders for plane crash probe

MANILA (Reuters) – The Philippines will send black boxes of a Lockheed C-130 aircraft that crashed at the weekend to the United States to seek expert help in opening and analyzing them, the military chief said on Wednesday.

The United States has committed to help extract information from the flight data and cockpit voice recorders that could shed light on the tragic incident that killed 53 people in the southern province of Jolo, Cirilito Sobejana said in a local television interview.

Sobejana said the Philippines has no such capability. He gave no timetable for when the U.S. experts could complete data extraction.

The aircraft was carrying troops bound for counter-insurgency operations when it crashed with 96 aboard, killing 53 in the country’s worst military air accident in nearly three decades. Among the dead were three civilians on the ground and the rest of the crew were injured.

Asked if bad weather or human error could be the reason for the incident, Sobejana said he would await the investigators’ official report.

“I told them to do it as fast as we can, but this should be deliberate,” he said. “We wanted to get the accurate information or the facts.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin offered additional support to Philippines counterpart Delfin Lorenzana when they spoke by phone on Tuesday to discuss the crash.

They also discussed critical medical evacuation support provided by U.S. personnel and other possible assistance, including victim identification, according to a statement released in Washington.

Sobejana said 16 of the casualties have been identified.

Some victims were burned beyond recognition, and authorities would rely on the dental records and forensic testing to identify them, he said.

(Reporting by Enrico Dela Cruz in Manila; Additional reporting by Eric Beech in Washington; Editing by Martin Petty)

Philippines again suspends scrapping of troop pact with U.S. amid China dispute

By Karen Lema and Idrees Ali

MANILA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The Philippines has again suspended a decision to scrap a crucial agreement governing the U.S. troop presence in the country, its foreign minister said on Monday, amid continuing maritime pressure from China.

The Pentagon welcomed the announcement from Manila – the third suspension of the decision covering the two-decade-old Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) that had been due to expire in August – but analysts said there would be disappointment in both countries that it was not renewed.

Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin said the suspension would be for a further six months while President Rodrigo Duterte “studies, and both sides further address his concerns regarding, particular aspects of the agreement.”

The Philippines is a U.S. treaty ally and several military agreements are dependent on the VFA, which provides rules for the rotation of thousands of U.S. troops in and out of the Philippines for war drills and exercises.

Having the ability to rotate in troops is important not only for the defense of the Philippines, but strategically for the United States when it comes to countering China’s increasingly assertive behavior in the region.

“The Department welcomes the government of the Philippines’ decision to again suspend termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement.

“We value the Philippines as an equal, sovereign partner in our bilateral alliance. Our partnership contributes not only to the security of our two nations, but also strengthens the rules-based order that benefits all nations in the Indo-Pacific.”

MARITIME TENSIONS

Greg Poling, a maritime security expert at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, said there would be frustration in Washington and most of the Philippine government.

“It isn’t the worst possible scenario, obviously, but Philippine officials were really signaling that they were confident they had reached a deal Duterte would get on board with, and instead everyone has to remain in limbo for at least another six months,” he said.

Poling said he did not think there was any substantive issue holding up an agreement.

“It is now as simple as Duterte doesn’t seem to want it, but everyone else does. If he won’t reverse course but he also doesn’t want to waste political capital on an unpopular decision heading into election season, then kicking the can down the road is his preferred option.”

Duterte told Washington last year he was cancelling the deal amid outrage over a senator and ally being denied a U.S. visa, but he has repeatedly suspended the expiration date.

The latest suspension comes at a time of continued tensions between Manila and Beijing over disputed waters in the South China Sea and a U.S. announcement last week that the Philippines would be among countries that would receive millions of COVID-19 vaccines it is donating.

Ties between Washington and its former colony have been complicated by Duterte’s rise to power in 2016 and his frequent condemnation of U.S. foreign policy and embrace of China, which has nevertheless continued to pressure his country’s maritime boundaries.

Manila has repeatedly protested what it calls the “illegal” and “threatening” presence of hundreds of Chinese “maritime militia” vessels inside its exclusive economic zone.

Jose Manuel Romualdez, Manila’s ambassador to Washington, told Reuters this month the VFA had been revamped to make it “acceptable” and “mutually beneficial” to both countries.

Manila has in the past been unhappy about issues such as a lack of jurisdiction over U.S. personnel who commit crimes in the Philippines and environmental damage during maritime drills.

(Reporting by Karen Lema in Manila; additional reporting by Idrees Ali and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Nick Macfie and Alex Richardson)

AstraZeneca commits to 1.8 million Thai vaccine doses amid supply anxiety

By Patpicha Tanakasempipat

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Drugmaker AstraZeneca said on Wednesday it would soon provide Thailand with 1.8 million doses of locally manufactured COVID-19 vaccine, the first of multiple batches this month, just days away from the launch of the country’s vaccination drive.

The joint announcement by AstraZeneca and Siam Bioscience, a firm owned by Thailand’s king, comes amid public anxiety about vaccine supplies, as the country suffers its most severe outbreak so far.

It did not say whether the Thai plant would make all 6 million doses that Thailand’s government has promised would be available this month.

The government’s mass immunization drive starts on Monday and relies almost entirely on its reserved 61 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine, most of which it said would come from Siam Bioscience, which is making vaccines for the first time.

Questions about Siam Bioscience meeting production targets are sensitive because King Maha Vajiralongkorn is its sole owner. Insulting Thailand’s monarchy is a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

AstraZeneca has partnered with the Thai firm for the manufacture of 200 million doses for use in Southeast Asia, a region with low COVID-19 immunization rates that is seeing a strong resurgence of the virus.

Thailand is seeking 100 million doses of coronavirus vaccine this year in total.

Thai health minister Anutin Charnvirakul said on Wednesday the promised 6 million doses would come this month “as planned”, but specified no delivery dates or the number to be sourced locally.

Anutin also said Thailand will get an additional 11 million doses of Sinovac vaccines before August. Thailand has used the Chinese vaccine for most of its early inoculations of frontline workers.

“We will get AstraZeneca vaccine. It may come from wherever, but all AstraZeneca just the same. It could be made in Thailand or imported from overseas. It depends on AstraZeneca’s supply chain,” Anutin told reporters.

Siam Bioscience has not answered queries from Reuters on its production targets.

AstraZeneca said 1.8 million locally produced doses would be delivered by Monday, the first of multiple deliveries this month.

It said deliveries of Thai-made doses to other Southeast Asian countries would start in July.

The first delivery to the Philippines, which was promised 17 million doses, was cut from 1.3 to 1.17 million doses and delayed from late June to mid-July, a Philippine presidential advisor told Reuters on Tuesday, citing Thai production delays.

(Reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat and Panu Wongcha-um; Editing by Martin Petty)

Philippines flags ‘incursions’ by nearly 300 Chinese militia boats

MANILA (Reuters) – The Philippines on Wednesday reported what it said were incursions into its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) by 287 maritime militia vessels from China, in a further sign of cracks reappearing in a relationship after a period of rapprochement.

“This incident along with continued illegal incursions of foreign vessels sighted near Philippine-held islands have been submitted to relevant agencies for the possible diplomatic actions,” the task force on the South China Sea said in a statement.

The Philippine foreign ministry has repeatedly complained to China in recent weeks about a “swarming and threatening presence” of Chinese vessels in its EEZ and has demanded they be withdrawn.

The Philippines has recently boosted its presence in the South China Sea through “sovereignty patrols,” in a show of defiance that critics say has been lacking under its pro-China president, Rodrigo Duterte, who has drawn domestic flak for his refusal to stand up to Beijing.

There was no immediate response to a request for comment from the Chinese embassy in Manila.

Experts say China’s fleet fishing boats and coastguard are central to its strategic ambitions in the South China Sea, maintaining a constant presence that complicates fishing and offshore energy activities by other coastal states.

Chinese officials have previously denied there are militia aboard its fishing boats.

Duterte caused a stir last week when he said a landmark 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration that went in the Philippines’ favor in a dispute with China was just a “piece of paper” that he could throw in the trash.

The tribunal also ruled that China’s claims to almost the entire South China Sea where about $3 trillion worth of ship-borne trade passes each year, had no legal basis.

Defense and security analyst Jose Antonio Custodio said Duterte’s comments “cancels-out” the tougher tone being taken with China by his top diplomats and defense chiefs.

“We don’t have unity in messaging,” Custodio said. “That is encouraging China’s actions.”

(Reporting by Karen Lema; Editing by Martin Petty)

Philippines tells China to mind its own business over maritime drills

MANILA (Reuters) -China has no business telling the Philippines what it can or cannot do within its waters, Manila’s defense ministry said on Wednesday, rejecting Beijing’s opposition to its ongoing coastguard exercises.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, where about $3 trillion worth of ship-borne trade passes each year. In 2016, an arbitration tribunal in The Hague ruled that claim, which Beijing bases on its old maps, was inconsistent with international law.

Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters that Beijing had “no authority or legal basis to prevent us from conducting these exercises” in the South China Sea because “their claims… have no basis”.

The Philippine coastguard and fisheries bureau started maritime exercises on Saturday inside the country’s 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), following an announcement of a boosting of its presence to counter the “threatening” presence of Chinese boats.

Responding to the exercises, China’s foreign ministry on Monday said the Philippines should “stop actions complicating the situation and escalating disputes”.

The Philippine defense ministry in a statement responded saying: “China has no business telling the Philippines what it can and cannot do.”

The Philippines has taken a tough tone in recent weeks over the lingering presence of hundreds of Chinese boats in its EEZ, reviving tensions that had eased due to President Rodrigo Duterte’s embrace of Beijing.

While the Philippines owed China a “huge debt” of gratitude for many things, including free COVID-19 vaccines, Duterte said on Wednesday he would not compromise on his country’s sovereignty in the South China Sea.

“So China, let it be known, is a good friend and we don’t want trouble with them, especially a war,” Duterte said in a late night address. “But there are things that are not really subject to a compromise … I hope they will understand but I have the interest of my country also to protect.”

On Wednesday, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin ordered the filing of another diplomatic protest, one of more than a dozen recently, this time over China’s rebuke.

“They can say what they want from the Chinese mainland; we continue to assert from our waters by right of international law what we won in The Hague. But we must not fail to protest,” Locsin said in a Tweet.

The exercises took place near a Philippine-held island in the disputed Spratly archipelago and at the heavily contested Scarborough Shoal, which the tribunal in 2016 said was a traditional fishing spot for several countries.

Lorenzana said it was China that was complicating matters by illegally occupying reefs it turned into artificial islands.

“It is they who are encroaching and should desist and leave,” he said.

(Reporting by Karen Lema; Editing by Martin Petty and Alison Williams)

Philippines seeks to lift medical capacity as COVID-19 cases top one million

By Adrian Portugal and Neil Jerome Morales

MANILA (Reuters) – The Philippines announced on Monday that its COVID-19 cases had exceeded one million, as the country sought to boost healthcare capacity to ease strains on hospitals and medical staff stretched by a second wave of infections.

The Philippines imposed a two-week lockdown of Manila and surrounding provinces late last month to try to stem a surge in cases blamed on more contagious COVID-19 variants.

But while daily infections have eased slightly they have still averaged more than 9,000, against 5,525 in March and 213 per day in April 2020, health ministry data showed.

In the capital region, an urban sprawl of 16 cities home to at least 13 million people, intensive care unit (ICU) capacity is above 70%, while 57% of isolation beds and 64% of ward beds for COVID-19 patients were occupied as of April 26.

In a bid to admit more patients, tents were turned into COVID-19 emergency rooms at the National Kidney Transplant Institute, a government hospital in Manila.

“All in all we waited for almost six hours It’s a long difficult wait,” COVID-19 patients Roel Galan told Reuters, speaking outside a makeshift emergency room.

Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque said on Monday 289 additional ICU beds would be made available in the capital.

To free up beds for severe COVID-19 patients, the Philippine Red Cross said on Monday it has set up field hospital tents and converted unused classrooms and buildings into quarantine facilities to care for patients with moderate and mild symptoms.

Dr. John Wong, a member of the government’s coronavirus task force’s data analytics team, said authorities must ramp up vaccinations to contain the virus and allow the economy to reopen.

He said 350,000 people needed to be vaccinated a day so the government could meet its target of immunizing 70 million, or a third of the country’s population, this year.

Since the Philippines started its vaccination drive in March, 1.5 million people have received a first dose of vaccine, with close to 231,000 people getting two doses, officials said.

The Philippines recorded 70 new deaths from COVID-19 on Monday bringing total fatalities to 16,853.

(Reporting by Adrian Protugal and Neil Jerome Morales; Writing by Karen Lema; Editing by Ed Davies)

Philippines to start clinical trials on ivermectin, other drugs for COVID-19

By Reuters Staff

MANILA (Reuters) – The Philippines will begin clinical trial of several drugs, including the anti-parasite medication ivermectin, in patients with COVID-19 to determine their efficacy in combatting the coronavirus, a senior government official said.

Some politicians in the Philippines have started promoting the use of ivermectin for coronavirus and given out free doses, although the country’s food and drugs regulator has cautioned against the use because of a lack of evidence for the drug as a treatment.

The clinical trial for ivermectin, which could last for six months, “will give us a more reliable estimate of the effects of invermectin as an anti-viral agent in mild and moderate (COVID-19) patients,” science and technology minister, Fortunato Dela Pena, said in a presentation late on Monday.

The Southeast Asian nation, which is facing one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in Asia, is battling a renewed surge in infections, with its vaccination drive on reaching 1.3 million people out of its more than 108 million population.

Ivermectin tablets have been approved for treating some worm infestations and for veterinary use in animals for parasites.

The World Health Organization last month recommended against using ivermectin in patients with COVID-19 except for clinical trials, because of a lack of data demonstrating its benefits.

The European Medicines Agency, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and Merck, an ivermectin manufacturer, have also recommended against its use.

Dela Pena said the government has also approved the clinical trials of a new formulation of methylprednisolone, a steroid, and melatonin, as treatments for COVID-19.

The government will also start trials of an herbal supplement, derived from the native tawa-tawa plant that can fight dengue, he said, adding to ongoing tests using virgin coconut oil for severe COVID-19 patients.

“We are trying several (medications). They may not be vaccines but they could potentially speed up the recovery,” Dela Pena said.

The Philippines has recorded more than 945,000 COVID-19 cases and over 16,000 deaths, the second highest rates in Southeast Asia, next to Indonesia.

Pacific Ocean storm intensifies into year’s first super typhoon

By Kanupriya Kapoor and Karen Lema

MANILA (Reuters) -Strong winds and high waves lashed the eastern Philippines on Monday as the strongest typhoon ever recorded in April barreled past in the Pacific Ocean, killing one man and triggering flooding in lower-lying communities, disaster officials said.

The national weather bureau issued a severe wind and heavy rainfall warning on Monday, saying “destructive typhoon-force winds extend outward up to 110 km (68.35 miles) from the center of the storm”.

More than 100,000 people were evacuated from coastal areas, according to provincial disaster agencies.

The core of Surigae, or Bising as the storm is known locally, is not expected to hit land. But with a diameter of 500 km and winds reaching 195 km per hour, parts of the eastern islands of Samar experienced flooding, while several communities lost power.

The first super typhoon of 2021 foreshadows a busy storm season for the region in the year ahead, experts say.

“Early indications are that the 2021 typhoon season will be at least average in activity, and possibly above average,” U.S. meteorologist Jeff Masters wrote in a post on Yale Climate Connections’ website, which reports daily on climate conditions.

Atmospheric scientists say data shows that storms, called typhoons, cyclones or hurricanes in different parts of the world, are getting stronger because of global warming.

“The fuel for these storms is warm oceans,” said Anne-Claire Fontan, a scientific officer at the World Meteorological Organization based in Geneva.

“The global trend is that they are getting stronger, and a higher percentage of total storms will be stronger.”

A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, allowing gale force winds to dump more rain. In particular, water temperature in the western Pacific Ocean is higher than the global average, making it fertile ground for mega storms like Surigae. The region sees more storms than any other part of the world, more than 70% of which develop at the peak of the season between July and October.

Disaster officials said a 79-year old man from Southern Leyte province in the Philippines was confirmed dead after he was hit by a fallen tree and one person was missing.

The Philippines sees around 20 tropical storms annually. Last year, the strongest typhoon of the year, Goni, hit the country with gusts of up to 310 km per hour, killing 25 people and forcing the evacuation of more than 345,000.

Taiwan, meanwhile, is hoping the storm brings much-needed rain to alleviate a drought, with people taking to social media to welcome it. However, it is expected to veer away from Taiwan out into the Pacific, bringing rain only to the northern part of the island later this week.

(Reporting by Kanupriya Kapoor in Singapore; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Taipei and Karen Lema in Manila; Editing by Susan Fenton)

AstraZeneca woes grow as Australia, Philippines, African Union curb COVID shots

By Reuters Staff

(Reuters) – Australia and the Philippines limited use of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday, while the Africa Union dropped plans to buy the shot, dealing further blows to the company’s hopes to deliver a vaccine for the world.

The vaccine – developed with Oxford University and considered a frontrunner in the global vaccine race – has been plagued by safety concerns and supply problems since Phase III trial results were published in December, with Indonesia the latest country forced to seek doses from other vaccine developers.

The Philippines suspended the use of AstraZeneca shots for people below 60 after Europe’s regulator said on Wednesday it found rare cases of blood clots among some adult recipients although the vaccine’s advantages still outweighed its risks.

Australia recommended people under 50 should get Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine in preference to AstraZeneca’s, a policy shift that it warned would hold up its inoculation campaign.

The African Union is exploring options with Johnson & Johnson having dropped plans to buy AstraZeneca’s vaccine from India’s Serum Institute, the head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told reporters.

AstraZeneca’s shot is sold at cost, for a few dollars a dose. It is by far the cheapest and most high-volume launched so far, and has none of the extreme refrigeration requirements of some other COVID-19 vaccines, making it likely to be the mainstay of many vaccination programs in the developing world.

But more than a dozen countries have at one time suspended or partially suspended use of the shot, first on concerns about efficacy in older people, and now on worries about rare side effects in younger people.

That, coupled with production setbacks, will delay the rollout of vaccines across the globe as governments scramble to find alternatives to tame the pandemic which has killed more than 3 million.

‘EXTREMELY RARE’

Italy joined France, the Netherlands, Germany and others in recommending a minimum age for recipients of AstraZeneca’s shot on Wednesday and Britain said people under 30 should get an alternative. South Korea also suspended use of the vaccine in people under 60 this week, while approving Johnson & Johnson’s shot.

AstraZeneca has said it is working with the British and European regulators to list possible brain blood clots as “an extremely rare potential side-effect”.

South Africa also paused AstraZeneca vaccinations last month because of a small trial showing the shot offered minimal protection against mild to moderate illness caused by the dominant local coronavirus variant.

AstraZeneca is grappling with production issues that have led to shortfalls of its shot in several countries.

Indonesian Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin said on Thursday the country was in talks with China on getting as many as 100 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to plug a gap in deliveries after delays in the arrivals of AstraZeneca shots.

India has put a temporary hold on all major exports of AstraZeneca’s shot made by the Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s biggest vaccine-maker, as domestic infections rise.

That has affected supplies to the GAVI/WHO-backed global COVAX vaccine-sharing facility through which 64 poorer countries are supposed to get doses from the SII, the program’s procurement and distributing partner UNICEF told Reuters last month.

Britain is slowing its vaccine rollout due to a shipment delay from India and is at loggerheads with the EU over exports. Australia has also blamed delays in its immunization campaign on supply issues in Europe.

AstraZeneca has cited reduced yields at a European factory behind the supply shortfall to the European Union.

Philippines sees 10,000 new COVID-19 cases as tight curbs return to capital

By Neil Jerome Morales

MANILA (Reuters) – The Philippines passed the 10,000 mark for new daily coronavirus infections for the first time on Monday and put its capital region back on one of its toughest levels of lockdown, to try to tackle a spike in cases that is testing its healthcare capacity.

Manila and surrounding provinces were put back under enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), the highest tier in its containment protocols, for the first time since May 2020 to try to quell the surge in cases, despite inroads late last year towards controlling its epidemic.

The country recorded 10,016 new infections on Monday, bringing the overall tally to 731,894, with deaths at 13,186, one of the highest caseloads in Asia.

Health experts say the surge in infections underscores the need to expedite a national vaccination drive, with only 656,331 healthcare workers so far given their first of two shots. The government aims to inoculate 70 million people this year.

It has also struggled to secure vaccine supplies, with an inventory of 2.525 million doses, mostly of Sinovac Biotech’s vaccine, one million of which arrived on Monday.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday allowed the private sector to import vaccines to boost supply and help reopen the economy.

“Whatever the cost, whatever the volume they want to bring in, it’s fine with me,” Duterte said in a national address.

Prior to Duterte’s approval, businesses go through the government for supply deals. Previously, half of the purchased doses were required to be given to the government.

Health authorities blame the spike on poor public compliance with prevention measures and the presence of new and more transmissible coronavirus variants in the capital region, which accounts for about a third of economic activity.

“This surge is really challenging while ECQ is painful, particularly for the economic sector,” said Benjamin Co, an infectious disease expert with three Manila hospitals.

The Philippines was the first country in Asia to go under a nationwide lockdown and broad restrictions and movement curbs saw its economy slump 9.5% last year, its worst economic contraction on record.

Hospitals’ intensive care and isolation bed capacity in the capital region have reached critical levels or above 70% usage, government data showed.

“I can give you beds, I can give you rooms. The problem is I cannot give you additional manpower capacity, like nurses and doctors to take care of you,” Co added.

(Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Ed Davies and Marguerita Choy)