At Senate, Aquino faces Dengvaxia controversy head-on

Mara Cepeda
At Senate, Aquino faces Dengvaxia controversy head-on
(UPDATED) Former president Benigno Aquino III says his administration implemented the controversial dengue vaccination program in good faith

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Former president Benigno Aquino III faced the joint Senate committee probe into the controversies hounding the now-suspended dengue vaccination program which was launched at the tail-end of his term.

Aquino was flanked by former executive secretary Pacquito Ochoa Jr and  former budget chief Florencio Abad at the Senate hearing on Thursday, December 14. Seated 3 seats away was his former health secretary, Janette Garin.

According to Aquino, he was made to understand that French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi Pasteur’s Dengvaxia vaccine had undergone all the necessary local and international processes to determine its safety and efficacy for mass use.

At the time, Aquino said no one, including his own health secretary, told him about their concerns about the dengue vaccine. 

He was also not informed that Sanofi had been found guilty of bribery, corruption, and false product claims in the United States, China, Europe, and Africa.

Aquino had met with Sanofi executives twice upon the request of the latter – first in Beijing, China, in November 2014, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit; and the second time in Paris, France in December 2015, where he attended the 21st Conference of Parties (COP 21) for the United Nations Framework  Convention on Climate Change.

On April 4, 2016, Garin launched the dengue vaccination program for public school students aged 9 and above in the National Capital Region, Central Luzon, and Calabarzon. (READ: TIMELINE: Dengue immunization program for public school students)

Public health experts had warned it was “too” rushed, arguing clinical trials on Dengvaxia’s safety, efficacy, and even cost-effectiveness have not been completed at the time. (READ: ‘Bad science, wrong info’ root of Dengvaxia problem – health experts)

Less than two years later, Sanofi said Dengvaxia could cause a more severe case of dengue when administered on a person who have not been infected with the virus prior immunization. (READ: Conflict between Garin and FEC emerges in Dengvaxia probe)

DOH Secretary Francisco Duque III suspended the program after the announcement, but not before more than 830,000 school children received the risky vaccine.  

At the Senate hearing, Aquino explained why the program was implemented. “From our perspective, the choice was simple: we can implement at this point in time to afford the protection or wait at least a year minimum and expose a risk that could be prevented because of this. I just want to state for the record, what we had then, none of this warning on November 2017.”

He said the dengue immunization program went through the necessary legal process, which allowed its P3.5-billion budget to be taken from savings from 2014 and 2015. 

Still, the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption believes Aquino is guilty of plunder.  

Detained Senator Leila de Lima, Aquino’s party mate at the Liberal Party, called his appearance at the Senate a “welcome respite from the alarming atmosphere” of the dengue vaccine controversy.

“PNoy faced the public to clarify and explain the decision of his past administration to implement the denuge vaccination program during a critical period in the nation’s public health. He confronted the accusations of negligence and corruption head-on, without equivocation, as only a person telling the truth can,” said De Lima in a letter she wrote from her Camp Crame cell on Saturday, December 16. 

She said Aquino’s “sober and straightforward” answers left Senator Richard Gordon and JV Ejercito “groping for ways to pin him down.” She also hit the VACC for hitting Aquino during the hearing.

“There is only one lesson in this. You cannot put a good man down. And the former president is as good as they come. We did not expect anything less from him. He made us proud,” she added.

Within the DOH

For now, the Department of Health (DOH) plans to closely monitor the health of all vaccinated children in the next 5 years. The students will be given health monitoring cards and ballers to help the DOH easily identify them. 

Meanwhile, former DOH secretary Paulyn Ubial had reiterated during the hearing that she wanted to stop the program after she succeeded Garin,  but she was “pressured” to continue during DOH budget deliberations at the House of Representatives.

According to Ubial, Garin’s husband, Oscar Garin Jr is Iloilo 1st District Representative, had told her to allocate budget to purchase more dengue vaccines, while Cebu 3rd District Representative Gwendolyn Garcia “badgered” her to get her to commit to expanding the vaccination program in Cebu. – Rappler.com

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Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda specializes in stories about politics and local governance. She covers the Office of the Vice President, the Senate, and the Philippine opposition. She is a 2021 fellow of the Asia Journalism Fellowship and the Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship of the UN. Got tips? Email her at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or tweet @maracepeda.