It was former President Benigno Aquino 3rd who ordered his Health Secretary then, Jannete Garin, to purchase P3.5 billion worth of the French firm Sanofi Pasteur’s controversial anti-dengue vaccine Dengvaxia, sources in the government disclosed. He also ordered his Budget Secretary Florencio Abad to look for, and release, the P3.5 billion funding for it, as the health department didn’t have such allocation in its 2016 budget.
Garin herself had hesitated to order the vaccines in 2015 because it still didn’t have clearances from reputable medical bodies, including the World Health Organization. Even her officials very strongly advised her against it.
The Philippines is the only country to undertake a mass immunization program using the Dengvaxia vaccine – involving 700,000 grade-four students during the last three months of the Aquino regime, with a total of 1 million planned. Although Mexican and Brazilian authorities have licensed the sale of the vaccine, they haven’t launched such mass, effectively compulsory, vaccination using the Dengvaxia vaccine.
President Duterte’s then Health Secretary Paulyn Ubial put the Dengvaxia program on hold in July, on grounds that it had not been proven safe yet.
The company itself, though, issued a warning on its own vaccine Nov. 29, reporting that it found out that if Dengvaxia “is given to individuals who haven’t been exposed to dengue, they could get more serious infections when they encounter the virus naturally.”
That means that if a child had never been exposed to, or sick with, dengue but he was inoculated with the Dengvaxia, and he then contracts the mosquito-borne illness, he would be worse off, and could even face death. Most of the 700,000 children inoculated with Dengvaxia had never had dengue. Some 700,000 Filipino children, therefore, now have the potentially deadly serum in their blood. Already, four children who had been inoculated with Dengvaxia and who caught dengue had reportedly died.
Even before it’s alarming findings, Sanofi had recommended the vaccine to be used only in populations among whom at least 50 percent have contracted the dengue disease. Dengue has been prevalent only in a few areas in the country, with total incidence of only 0.01 percent of the total Philippine population.
The World Health Organization, the UN authority on the safety of drugs, had not approved the vaccine. It finally reported in July 2016 that countries should consider the introduction of the dengue vaccine “only in geographic settings (national or subnational) where epidemiological data indicate a high burden of the disease.”
“There’s no way for Garin to get Budget Secretary Florencio Abad to release government funds to P3.5 billion in a month’s time to buy a single type of vaccine, one that was not approved by reputable local and international bodies, and bought from one company,” a government source said. The health departments’total budget annually for all vaccines it buys is about P3 billion, he pointed out. The source quipped: “How much is 10 percent of P3.5 billion?”
Aquino’s P3.5 billion ($70 million) purchase of Sanofi’s Dengvaxia – P3,000 for the three-doses required for each recipient – was a life-saver of sorts for the French firm. It spent $1.5 billion in 20 years to develop the vaccine, but had sold only $21 million, with the Philippines’ $70 million purchase giving it a financial boost, as well as the worldwide advertisement for it. Sanofi was racing against time, given that at least four other anti-dengue vaccines are being developed by competitors.
Aquino’s order to buy the Dengvaxia vaccines was given right after his December 1, 2015 meeting with top Sanofi officials, who included its CEO Olivier Charmeil in Paris, during a three-day visit there to attend the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference.
“I want this fast-tracked please,” Aquino reportedly told Garin as he stared intently at her, in hearing distance of Cabinet members who accompanied him and of the Sanofi officials, referring to the French firm’s lobbying for the purchase of the Dengvaxia vaccines. With Aquino in that meeting, aside from Garin, were finance secretary Cesar Purisima, Trade and Industry Gregory Domingo, Transportation Secretary Joseph Abaya, and officials of the Philippine embassy in Paris.
A press release by the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) on that meeting reported: “Aquino had a business meeting on Tuesday with officials of Sanofi Pasteur for the introduction of a dengue vaccine in the Philippines as the French pharmaceutical company moves toward completing the clinical trials for the vaccine….”
Malacañang for Sanofi
The Malacañang statement was practically a press release for Sanofi’s product, gushing: “The vaccine had completed phase 3 (advanced, pre-product launch) clinical studies in 2014” and that it passed research phases in the Philippines, reflecting high levels of research competence and capability.” As it turned out, though, the World Health Organization had not cleared the vaccine, and clinical trials were still ongoing at that time.
Strangely, when Congress started investigating the controversy, Garin in effect claimed that Aquino’s information officials were lying: “It was not a meeting between Sanofi and President Aquino (but) the usual time where [sic]the president will allow himself to face the business community. The dengue vaccine issue was not discussed.”
Aquino had demonstrated extraordinary interest in the health department’s purchase of the Dengvaxia vaccine: It was the second time he met with the Sanofi officials.
He found time during the hectic APEC meeting in Beijing, China to meet with Sanofi officials, headed by the firm’s senior vice president for Asia Jean-luc Lowinski on Nov 9, 2014. The Sanofi officials were the only businessmen Aquino met with in Beijing. A press release by the Presidential Broadcast Staff reported at that time that Aquino discussed “Sanofi’s progress in developing a dengue vaccine for affected towns in the Philippines.”
Senator Richard Gordon, chairman of the Blue Ribbon Committee, when he was investigating the controversy last year pointed out the suspicious Dengvaxia purchase: “December 2, there was a meeting in Paris (between Aquino and the Sanofi executives); by December 22, the Food and Drug Administration approved the vaccine; by December 29, the Special Allotment Release Order for P3.5 billion was issued.” Talk of a midnight deal.
Gordon added: “The vaccine purchase was never budgeted by the health department in 2014, 2015, 2016 and also in 2017. They only requested it in November of 2015. The budget department found the money by declaring ‘savings’ from personnel salaries.”
This dengue vaccine corruption is of that sickening Yellow template: A noble cause is used to conceal graft of mammoth proportions. This case, though, could be the worst, as it has put the lives of our 700,000 mostly poor children on the line.