RITM director stays on, Duque clarifies amid sacking allegations

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 23)— The current director of the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine will remain at her post, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said Monday as he shrugged off claims of the supposed controversial sacking.

In a phone interview with CNN Philippines, Duque clarified Dr. Celia Carlos was not replaced, noting there had been an "error" in the DOH-issued personnel order that made rounds on social media over the weekend.

"The circulating issuance stating that Dir. Carlos has been replaced by Asec. Santiago is an erroneous draft of the document which was inadvertently posted but immediately taken down," DOH said in a separate statement.

The leaked memo— dated March 21— confirmed the supposed designation of Health Assistant Secretary Dr. Nestor Santiago as the Officer-in-Charge-Director IV of RITM, with the order deemed "effective immediately."

Duque, however, stressed that Santiago was only provided oversight function or supervision to "help out" in the processes in the RITM, where samples for coronavirus testing are delivered.

The department said Santiago "shall guide and manage the expansion of testing capacity to public and private laboratories, and attend to coordination with other agencies" so that Carlos can focus on "optimizing" the RITM's functions.

The health chief earlier noted Santiago "cannot take the directorial post" as it would be a form of demotion from his Assistant Secretary position.

Netizens have earlier slammed the agency's alleged move to replace Carlos, with some speculating that she was booted out for refusing to expedite the testing processes for some "VIPs" particularly public officials.

Santiago's designation came in the wake of supposedly leaked chats circulating in social media on alleged complaints from RITM personnel that they were being asked to give priority to the testing of politicians and their families.

Some senators and other local officials— who were asymptomatic at the time— also came under hot water for availing of the service, while some patients under investigation have yet to gain access to the tests.

Previously, the only COVID-19 test kits available in the Philippines were the ones at the RITM donated by the World Health Organization.

Local scientists from the University of the Philippines National Institutes of Health have also developed cheaper rapid test kits for the infectious disease, with select hospitals already beginning clinical trials.

Some international organizations and governments— including China, where the mysterious virus first spread— have also donated thousands of COVID-19 test kits to the Philippines amid the global pandemic.