Aquino, Sanofi, DOH officials face graft complaint over Dengvaxia mess

Mara Cepeda
Aquino, Sanofi, DOH officials face graft complaint over Dengvaxia mess
The VACC, VPCI, and physician Francisco Cruz claim that the accused government officials 'anomalously' funded the immunization program and favored Sanofi to procure the vaccine

MANILA, Philippines – Former president Benigno Aquino III, former Department of Health (DOH) officials, and French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi Pasteur are now facing a graft complaint over the controversial Dengvaxia dengue vaccine.

The Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption (VACC), the Vanguard of the Philippines Constitution Incorporated (VPCI), and former DOH consultant-turned-whistleblower Francisco Cruz filed the complaint before the Department of Justice (DOJ) on Monday, February 12.

The complaint was signed by Cruz, VACC lawyer Manuelito Luna, and VPCI lawyer Eligio Mallari. (READ: TIMELINE: Dengue immunization program for public school students)

Among the more than 20 accused individuals are Aquino, his former budget chief Florencio Abad, and ex-DOH secretary Janette Garin. Also listed as respondents are the “directors and officers” of Sanofi and Zuellig Pharma, Sanofi’s distributor in the Philippines.

They are being accused of technical malversation, criminal negligence, violation of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, and “other violations of law” after the school-based dengue vaccination program was launched by the DOH in April 2016 in Metro Manila, Central Luzon, and Calabarzon. 

Some 837,000 Filipino grade-schoolers had already been vaccinated before Sanofi announced in November 2017 that Dengvaxia may lead a person to get severe dengue if he or she had not been infected by the virus before immunization.

This sparked probes both at the Senate and the House of Representatives. Current Health Secretary Francisco Duque III suspended the vaccination program as the DOH began heightened surveillance of the vaccinated children.

The graft complaint states that Aquino and the other former officials “anomalously and illegally funded and procured the Dengvaxia vaccine and ill-advisedly, thoughtlessly, and imprudently” implemented the dengue immunization program “by unduly influencing or exerting undue pressure on any member of the BAC (bids and awards committee) or any officer or employee of the procuring entity to take a particular action which favors or tends to favor a particular bidder.”

The complaint also states that the accused officials should be held liable for the effects of Dengvaxia on those who were vaccinated.

“Clearly, the deaths and dengue shock or adverse events noted following inoculation of Dengvaxia are correlated or linked. The causal relationship between vaccine and deaths, dengue shock or adverse events, under the circumstances, could hardly be ignored. And the number of counts would be the number of subjects inoculated irrespective of the number of doses administered,” reads the complaint. 

Cruz and the VACC previously lodged a complaint against the same officials before the Commission on Elections, accusing Aquino of using funds to campaign for the Liberal Party in 2016.

They are asking the poll body to investigate whether the launch of the dengue vaccination program violated the election code. 

Augusto “Boboy” Syjuco Jr had also filed a complaint against the officials before the Office of the Ombudsman for alleged “mass murder” over the Dengvaxia controversy. 

DOH officials implicated 

Aside from Aquino, Abad, and Garin, the following DOH officials were also implicated in the graft complaint before the DOJ:

  • Undersecretary Carol Taiño
  • Undersecretary Gerardo Bayugo
  • Undersecretary Lilibeth David
  • Undersecretary Mario Villaverde
  • Assistant Secretary Lyndon Lee Suy
  • Assistant Secretary Nestor Santiago
  • Financial Management Service Director Larry Cruz
  • Family Health Office officer-in-charge Joyce Ducusin
  • Health Promotion and Communication Service officer-in-charge Mar Wynn Bello
  • National Capital Region regional director Ariel Valencia
  • Central Luzon regional director Leonila Gorgolon
  • Calabarzon regional director Rio Magpantay
  • Philippine Children’s Medical Center director Julius Lecciones
  • Retired undersecretary Nemesio Gako
  • Resigned undersecretary Vicente Belizario Jr
  • Resigned undersecretary Kenneth Hartigan-Go
  • Resigned head executive assistant to Garin Yolanda Oliveros

These officials were previously tagged by Cruz as forming the so-called “DOH mafia.” But Duque, Taiño, and Larry Cruz denied the existence of mafia-like operations in the DOH during Duque’s first confirmation hearing before the Commission on Appointments.

Experts from the University of the Philippines-Philippine General Hospital said 3 of the 14 cases of vaccinated children they reviewed died of dengue despite getting Dengvaxia. There is still no clear evidence indicating the vaccine directly caused the deaths. (READ: DOH considers UP-PGH findings as primary ‘evidence’ on Dengvaxia)

The Public Attorney’s Office is also conducting its own forensic examination of exhumed bodies of other vaccinated kids. 

But scores of doctors, including former DOH chief Esperanza Cabral, asked PAO to stop its forensic examination, saying it is causing unnecessary panic among parents who are now afraid to avail of other government health programs for their children. – 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.