Aquino, Abad Grilled at Congress Hearing on P3.5-B Dengvaxia Dengue Vaccine Deal

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DENGVAXIA DENGUE VACCINE SCANDAL. Former President Benigno Aquino III (center) takes oath along with former Budget Secretary Florencio Abad and former Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa before testifying at the hearing on the controversial Dengvaxia dengue vaccine at the Senate in Pasay City on Dec. 14, 2017. The vaccine was procured for P3.5 billion by the government during Aquino’s term and was administered to 830,000 students and several policemen nationwide.

 

PASAY CITY (via PhilAmPress) – The Senate has opened its investigation into the Department of Health’s (DOH) controversial purchase of dengue vaccine Dengvaxia worth P3.5 billion which has spurred a health scare in the country, especially among 800,000 pupils, their parents and relatives and many policemen who had been administered with the vaccine.

Following its first hearing, the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee invited former President Benigno Aquino III, former Budget Secretary Florencio Abad and former Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa to  the resumption of the probe on Dec. 14 as the purchase of the vaccine was made while they about to wind up his term.

In an unprecedented move, Aquino and his two Cabinet officials appeared before  the Senate  committee and clarified their roles in vaccine deal.
Senator Richard Gordon, committee chair, earlier said that he saw “strong signs of conspiracy” in the vaccine purchase noting that it seemed like there was a hurry to procure them but in the hearing that following, Gordon appeared mellow on the matter and criticized by netizens and some senators for allegedly almost monopolizing the hearing.

Before the hearing, Gordon said that his suspicion was fueled by reports that Aquino and former Department of Health (DOH) Secretary Janette Garin had several meetings with pharmaceutical company Sanofi Pasteur which resulted in the acceleration of the procurement process.

In a statement he read before the committee, Aquino said that there were no parties that objected to purchasing Dengvaxia.

Bago nagdesisyon ang gobyerno sa Dengvaxia, habang nagdedesisyon, pagkatapos magdesisyon at hanggang sa ngayon, walang nagparating sa akin ng pagtutol sa bakuna (Before the government decided to purchase Dengvaxia, while making the decision, after making the decision, and until now, there were no parties that reached me that objected to the vaccine), Aquino said in his statement.

Aquino said that this was the reason why an immunization program was launched in NCR, Calabarzon, and Central Luzon in 2015.

He said that because he vowed to leave the Philippines better than it was before, he felt that purchasing the vaccines would be beneficial.
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Facing the Senate Blue Ribbon and Health committees, Aquino defended his administration’s controversial dengue vaccination program, which was launched in April 2016.

“Before the government decided on Dengvaxia, while deciding, and even after deciding, no one came to me with objection to the vaccine,” Aquino told the Senate panel.

It came to his understanding that the efficacy and safety of the vaccine had been cleared by the US Food and Drug Administration, he added.

The former president also stressed that Mexico and Brazil had approved the vaccine before the Philippines.

In his opening speech, Aquino admitted that he had met with executives of pharmaceutical giant Sanofi Pasteur at the sidelines of the climate change conference in Paris in December 2015.

“We were told that Sanofi was ready for the vaccine,” Aquino said.

Aquino said that such type of medicine takes years to develop to ensure its efficacy and safety as it undergoes five steps under the US FDA.

“It is our understanding that the local and international processes of Dengvaxia had been completed,” the former president said.

The Department of Health launched the vaccine program in Metro Manila, Central Luzon and the CALABARZON region as these are the top three regions affected by dengue based on 2015 data, according to Aquino.

 Defending his administration’s vaccine program, Aquino stressed that it was the government’s obligation to ensure the safety of its citizens.

“Those who have less in life should have more in law,” Aquino said, quoting former President Ramon Magsaysay.

“I did not think of denying vaccine protection to those who most need it,” he said.

The US Food and Drug Administration also assured them that they regulated international trials.

 

Dengvaxia, which was purchased during the Aquino administration in 2015, was later reported to pose risks to those who have not been previously infected by the virus.

The DOH has stopped implementation of its program

The House of Representatives, meanwhile, is set to conduct its own inquiry into the Dengvaxia deal mess.

President Rodrigo Duterte, meanwhile, warned the government will run after all individuals who will be found after investigation criminally responsible for the use of the questioned vaccine Dengvaxia in the immunization of hundreds of thousands of school children.

Presidential spokesman Secretary Harry Roque said Duterte was already adopting the position of the Department of Health to hold French pharmaceutical firm Sanofi Pasteur liable for the rollout of Dengvaxia in the country.

“He has promised that after investigation.. has been or have been conducted both by the Senate and the Department of Justice… that he will run after all individuals who may have criminal culpability for this ‘no,” Roque said.
 The Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption (VACC) recommended  that the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee investigate former President Benigno Aquino III, former Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, former Health Secretary Janet Garin, and other officials for plunder over the alleged anomalous purchase of Dengvaxia vaccine.

“The VACC is respectfully requesting this body to recommend the investigation of the following persons in connection with the anomalous purchase and administering of Dengvaxia vaccine to more than  833,000 Filipino children,” VACC general counsel Ferdinand Topacio said during the joint hearing of the Senate Blue Ribbon, Health and Demography, and Finance Committees on the Dengvaxia controversy.

“For plunder: former President Benigno S. Aquino III, former Budget Secretary Abad, former Health Secretary Garin, former Undersecretary Boy Gako, former Undersecretary [Kenneth] Hartigon-Go, Undersecretary Lilibeth David, Undersecretary Bayugo, Undersecretary Taino, Assistant Secretary Lyndon Lee Suy, Asec. Santiago, and other persons named here which we will submit,” Topacio said. 

“Former Secretary Abad, in a memorandum, recommended the release of the fund, but that is not in the GAA. Such fund was released in the authorization of former President Aquino,” the lawyer added.

The funds amounting to P3.5 billion were supposedly released after Aquino met twice with Sanofi officials in Paris in December 2015, Topacio alleged.

“The irregularity become more obvious when Go said that the vaccines are politically motivated … As proven during the hearing, Dengvaxia was approved by the FDA in undue haste,” Topacio alleged.

The lawyer claimed that Garin and other officials of the Department of Health were in “cahoots” the former President.
“The amount of the P3.5 billion is a violation on the ruling of the Supreme Court,” Topacio also claimed.

Aquino was supposedly in conspiracy with other officials in the procurement of Dengvaxia, the VACC lawyer claimed, saying Sanofi Pasteur tolerated it that it “may have resulted in kickback.””

“In order to reveal the money trails, there is a need to check the bank accounts of the above persons,” Topacio said.

“The VACC is respectfully requesting this body to recommend the investigation of the following persons in connection with the anomalous purchase and administering of Dengvaxia vaccine to more than  833,000 Filipino children,” VACC general counsel Ferdinand Topacio said during the joint hearing of the Senate Blue Ribbon, Health and Demography, and Finance Committees on the Dengvaxia controversy.

“For plunder: former President Benigno S. Aquino III, former Budget Secretary Abad, former Health Secretary Garin, former Undersecretary Boy Gako, former Undersecretary [Kenneth] Hartigon-Go, Undersecretary Lilibeth David, Undersecretary Bayugo, Undersecretary Taino, Assistant Secretary Lyndon Lee Suy, Asec. Santiago, and other persons named here which we will submit,” Topacio said. 

“Former Secretary Abad, in a memorandum, recommended the release of the fund, but that is not in the GAA. Such fund was released in the authorization of former President Aquino,” the lawyer added.

The funds amounting to P3.5 billion were supposedly released after Aquino met twice with Sanofi officials in Paris in December 2015, Topacio alleged.

“The irregularity become more obvious when Go said that the vaccines are politically motivated … As proven during the hearing, Dengvaxia was approved by the FDA in undue haste,” Topacio alleged.

The lawyer claimed that Garin and other officials of the Department of Health were in “cahoots” the former President.

“The amount of the P3.5 billion is a violation on the ruling of the Supreme Court,” Topacio also claimed.

Aquino was supposedly in conspiracy with other officials in the procurement of Dengvaxia, the VACC lawyer claimed, saying Sanofi Pasteur tolerated it that it “may have resulted in kickback.””

“In order to reveal the money trails, there is a need to check the bank accounts of the above persons,” Topacio said.

In Malacanang, Roque said the President stands by the recommendation of the DOH to hold Sanofi responsible.

Roque said that Malacañang would also want a refund, as suggested by  Secretary Duque.

“We want, by way of mere — by way of minimum, a refund of what we have paid already for the Dengvaxia. That’s the declaration already of the DOH Secretary ‘no,” Roque said.

“He (Duterte) wants a refund of what we had paid because there was concealment of a material fact and that is that children who have not developed dengue may acquire the disease three to six years after the vaccination,” he added.

“That was not a known fact when government decided to embark on the vaccination program,” Roque said.

During Monday’s hearing, an official from the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) said the Office of the President, through Ochoa, authorized the realignment of funds for various health projects, including the Dengvaxia program.

Former Health Secretary Janet Garin, former her part, has refuted claims that the Dengvaxia purchase was a midnight deal. “Everything was above board,” she  said.

Gordon echoed former Health Secretary Pauline Ubial’s suspicion on the timing of the multibillion-peso purchase of the dengue vaccines, which happened months before the May 2016 national elections.

“Of course, meron silang executive order signed by the executive secretary, by experience you cannot release that much [amount]…Hindi makakagalaw ang DBM (Department of Budget and Management) nang hindi nagpapaalam sa pangulo, tama ang sinasabi ni Pauline Ubial na ang timing hindi maganda,” Gordon said.

“Oo, sabwatan. Patapos na ang term, palabas na sila, humanap sila ng gagasatusin na hindi tama,” he added.

Gordon also cast doubt on the areas selected for the initial roll out of the dengue immunization program, which he said have large populations of voters.

“Saan tinesting ito? tinesting sa NCR (National Capital Region), tinesting sa Region 3, Region 4, ‘yun ang pinakamalalaking boto eh,” he said.

The government’s purchase in 2016 of the Dengvaxia vaccines and its use in the immunization of over 830,000 schoolchildren had been the subject of severe criticisms after manufacturer Sanofi Pasteur advised against its use on patients who have yet to contract dengue.

The purchase of the vaccine, which Gordon said was done in haste, was funded under a miscellaneous personnel fund and was not included in the General Appropriations Act for 2016.

The Department of Justice, which had ordered the National Bureau of Investigation to probe the Dengvaxia purchase, said Aquino and all other officials involved in the procurement will be included in the investigation.

During the hearing, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III accused French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi Pasteur of “mental dishonesty” on the efficacy of its anti-dengue vaccine, thereby placing the lives of hundreds of thousands of children at risk.

“I think they have not been forthright from the beginning,” Duque told the Senate inquiry into the previous administration’s dengue immunization program.

“My index of suspicion is so high. I am pregnant with doubt. We should not allow this. We are talking about the lives of children,” Duque said.

Medical experts who were part of an advisory body to the Department of Health told the Senate hearingy they had recommended only “phased implementation” of Sanofi’s Dengvaxia vaccine and not mass immunization, pending further clinical trials.

Even the World Health Organization (WHO) officials denied recommending the program.

Responding to questions from senators, the experts said the launch of the public vaccination program was “premature.”

Sen.  Gordon, head of the committee leading the probe, said the government had approved the dengue public immunization program with “undue haste” and without sufficient preparation.

Sales of Dengvaxia and the public immunization program using the vaccine have been suspended by the health department after Sanofi warned it could lead to “severe” symptoms for people who had not previously been infected with dengue.

But the company’s regional head insisted that the vaccine was safe and effective adding that removing the vaccine from the Philippine market did the public a “disservice.”

“That will be a regression in the country’s approach in solving a major public health concern and a disservice to the Filipino people,” Thomas Triomphe, Sanofi Pasteur’s head of Asia-Pacific, said.

“Doing so would in effect leave 90 percent of the population at the mercy of an epidemic which has been found to be preventable,” Triomphe added, referring to Health department figures on the number of Filipinos who contract dengue.

The DOH launched its immunization program in April 2016 under the Aquino administration, and over 800,000 public school students received doses of the vaccine, which is administered in three shots six months apart.

Sanofi on November 29 announced that while Dengvaxia “provides persistent protective benefit” against dengue in people who had prior infection, severe forms of the disease could occur following vaccination in those not previously infected by the dengue virus.

Ubial said she had some misgivings in continuing the dengue immunization program using Dengvaxia following the advice of some experts as well as “political interference.”

“I dilly-dallied. It was intentional because of the issues raised by Dr. (Leonila) Dans and his team and Dr. (Anthony) Leachon. There were issues of long-term safety and so I had to be very careful, go the extra mile, [exercise]extraordinary diligence in implementing this program,” Ubial said.

She also said some members of Congress “pressured” her to continue the program started during the previous Aquino administration, and even warned her she could go to jail for violating a contract.

“May I say that maybe the Senate and Congress (sic) must look at the process (of procuring vaccines). It should not [have]political interference. Politics and health (when mixed) is really a disaster,” Ubial said.

Ubial was the first Health secretary of President Rodrigo Duterte. She was replaced by Duque, Health secretary during the Arroyo administration, when the powerful Commission on Appointments rejected her appointment. (PhilAmPress/Alfred G Gabot)

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