MANILA, Philippines — Despite the health crisis inflicted by COVID-19, some unscrupulous importers tried to take advantage and brought in over P244 million in smuggled or fake personal protective equipment (PPEs) and other medical supplies mostly from China.
In a statement Friday, the Department of Finance (DOF) said the Bureau of Customs (BOC) confiscated these counterfeit and unregistered items—although direly needed for COVID-19 response—during the period March 25 to May 31, or during the height of the lockdown imposed to contain the spread of the deadly virus.
In a text message to the Inquirer, BOC Assistant Commissioner Vincent Philip C. Maronilla said these shipments they seized included “substandard PPEs and anti-COVID-19 medicines without FDA [Food and Drug Administration] clearances.”
“Majority came from China,” added Maronilla, who is also the BOC’s spokesperson.
In a report to Finance Secretary Carlos G. Dominguez III, Customs Commissioner Rey Leonardo B. Guerrero lamented that while the BOC—the country’s second-biggest tax-collection agency—had “released various regulations to facilitate and speed up the process of importing PPEs and other medical supplies, some unscrupulous traders have taken advantage of the coronavirus-induced crisis to smuggle such items into the country.”
Last March, the BOC established one-stop shops to not only fast-track releases of imported PPEs and medical equipment but also ensure their tax-exemption.
When the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act was still in effect, imported PPEs, medical supplies and test kits had been exempted from paying import duties, 12-percent value-added tax (VAT), excise taxes, as well as other fees. This tax-free perk expired last June 24, when the Bayanihan Law lapsed.
During the period March 9 to July 2, the BOC released a total of 13,634 PPE shipments under flexible arrangements amid a public health emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But since some traders took undue advantage, Guerrero told Dominguez that he had “issued 10 letters of authority (LOA) covering the inspection of persons and premises suspected of selling or storing smuggled and/or unregistered medicines and equipment from March 25 to May 31.”
“Profiling/targeting of imported shipments suspected to contain contraband and other smuggled articles were intensified. As a result, a total of P244.4-million worth of smuggled/counterfeit/unregistered PPEs and medicines were seized by the [BOC],” Guerrero said.
For one, PPEs and 360 boxes of Chinese medicines that supposedly cure COVID-19—but not registered with the FDA—worth P70 million were confiscated in Manila last May.
At least six other BOC-led raids conducted in Manila and Pasay City yielded P174.4-million worth of smuggled PPEs, medical equipment and supplies, as well as medicines.
“The cases involving these smuggled or unregistered products are now the subject of forfeiture proceedings by the BOC before the law division of the Manila International Container Port (MICP),” according to Guerrero.
“Aside from these items, the BOC had also seized 2.2 kilograms (kg) of imported Chinese medicines without FDA clearance last April 27, and has initiated the filing of appropriate charges against their importers and consignees,” Guerrero said.
“Another five boxes of Chinese medicines containing 48,000 medicinal tablets and bundled with 238 master cases of assorted imported cigarettes; four drums of toluene-2.4 diisocyanate; two drums of propylene glycol; two drums of glycerol-propoxylate-block-ethoxylate; two drums of vacuum pump oil; two drums of paraffin oil; two drums of power steering fluid; one drum of sodium hypochlorite; and two drums of siloxane were confiscated from a warehouse in Valenzuela City last April 30. These were seized and taken into custody by the BOC for failure of the owner to present the required import documents for these items,” Guerrero added.
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