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Aquino’s Dengvaxia debacle: Criminal negligence or negligent crime?

WITH most of the details on President Benigno Aquino 3rd’s P3.5-billion mass injection program using the faulty Dengvaxia vaccine having been revealed in the two hearings in the Senate, we can only conclude either of two possibilities: that it was a stupendous case of criminal negligence or an execrably negligent crime.

Aquino claimed he had to act fast in the closing months of his presidency in order “to give a solution to the dengue problem,” of which Sanofi’s Dengvaxia appeared to be so. He added that he had made this move so that he could fulfill his promise to leave the country better off than before he became president.

If we believe Aquino, we have to conclude that his mass vaccination program was indubitably a case of criminal negligence of massive proportions.

How could Aquino have ordered P3 billion worth of a new vaccine untested for mass recipients—even breaking rules on bidding and the use of government funds without Congress’ approval—without asking other people, other experts other than his health secretary Janette Garin and the Sanofi people? For a P3.5 billion program that involved the departments of health, education and local governments, there wasn’t a single meeting of the Cabinet or of this cluster. (Didn’t his education secretary, Brother Luisito Armin, a member of the De la Salle Christian Brothers who had been president of De La Salle University, care about the children under his care enough to ask his university’s medical school about the safety of Dengvaxia?)

Rather than spending hours playing computer games, why didn’t Aquino simply google “Dengvaxia vaccine risks” in the period he ordered the purchase of 1 million doses of Dengvaxia in mid-December 2015 to the start of its injection in July 2016 to hundreds of thousands of Filipino childre?

If he had done so, he would have read the World Health Organization’s fact sheet posted in that period which categorically announced that Dengvaxia was not prequalified at that time (or to this day) by the WHO.

If he didn’t understand what he read, he could have easily googled “WHO prequalification.” He would have learned in seconds that a WHO-prequalified drug or vaccine means it meets standards of “quality, safety and efficacy.” If it isn’t “prequalified”, as is the case with Dengvaxia, then it may not be safe nor effective.

Aquino (right) and his budget secretary at the Senate hearing: Did he tell the truth?

If you were told that there’s this newly developed miracle drug that would make your child immune from pneumonia, but costs P50,000, wouldn’t you do some research and ask other people to find out if there’s no terrible side-effect to this medicine, or even check if the claims of its seller are true?

Wasn’t he curious enough that the Food and Drug Administration had not approved of Dengvaxia to be marketed in the country that he had to order it, through Garin, to do so in a rush?

Wasn’t Aquino curious that most of the members of the Philippine Formulary Executive Council – the body that approves what medicines and drugs the government can procure – didn’t want to give its imprimatur to Dengvaxia, and did so only after considerable pressure, and only for a one-year period and with six conditions? One of these was to undertake the vaccination in phases, and not en masse to 830,000 people as it had been done, so that the program can be undertaken under medical supervision and the vaccine’s effects be monitored closely.

Council warned
Why did Aquino go ahead with the mass-vaccination program when the council warned that Dengvaxia may have “unknown risks which could be better managed and contained in a phased implementation”?

Why didn’t Aquino even consult with his past health secretary Dr. Enrique Ona, one of his first appointees to his Cabinet, who had been studying what to do with the country’s dengue problem?

Or did he replace Ona with Garin in February 2015 after he concluded that the respected 77-year-oldld surgeon would be unlikely to collaborate with him in his Dengvaxia plot, in contrast to the 43-year-old Garin who was more of a politician (a three-term congresswoman) than a physician?

Aquino told the press last Friday that his Dengvaxia debacle was, to use Catholic Church terminology, only a “venial sin” since it was done in good faith.

But if we take him at his word, he would have to be charged and put in prison, as the Revised Penal Code stipulates severe penalties for reckless imprudence and criminal negligence.

In 2014, seven Quezon City officials were convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison by the Sandiganbayan for the Ozone Disco fire in 1996 that took 162 lives. They were found guilty of graft and corruption even if it was never proven that they received bribes from the owners of the disco for ignoring fire-safety laws. The court explained its decision: “The slapdash approval of the building permits and certificate of occupancy marked by a lackadaisical screening of the requirements… marks the officials’ evident bad faith and manifest partiality to the applicant.”

Slapdash approval
That kind of “slapdash approval” of permits, “lackadaisical screening of requirements”, and “manifest partiality” to Sanofi perfectly describes Aquino’s rush to purchase P3 billion worth of Dengvaxia, which is very likely to result in deaths due to severe dengue more than the 162 killed in the Ozone fire.

We will be shamed as a nation though if we believe Aquino, who obviously inherited his father’s gift of gab. This Dengvaxia disgrace isn’t a case of criminal negligence. It has all the markings of a negligent crime.

Aquino claims he just had to act fast to address the dengue problem. But why did he choose to act on this particular disease, to the extent he even violated laws on procurement and the use of government funds, when dengue wasn’t, and still isn’t, even a leading cause of death in the country?

Yearly deaths due to dengue have never been more than 1,200. This is a fraction, for instance, of the 53,000 deaths due to pneumonia, and the 24,000 caused by tuberculosis, for both of which long-proven effective vaccines are available .

Why did Aquino instead choose to buy vaccines for dengue for a mass vaccination program, and not for pneumonia and tuberculosis, which are by far the leading causes of deaths, especially of children, in the country? Is it because many companies are producing and selling the vaccines for these latter diseases, companies which could all bid to supply government, unlike dengue which only Sanofi sells?

The $70 million that Aquino used to buy the dengue vaccine could have bought 8,000 dialysis machines so that each town in the country could have one each, which would extend the lives of the poor with severe diabetes, which kills 30,000 yearly.

Aquino claimed nobody told him about the dangers of Dengvaxia. But if he could be briefed six times on the plans to capture Zulkifli Abd Hir aka Marwan before the ill-fated operation in Mamasapano in which he interrogated his police officials on their proposals, why didn’t he heave a single briefing on the Dengvaxia vaccination program?

FDA approval of Dengvaxia took barely a month, and just two weeks after he met with Sanofi executives in Paris. He ignored the Congress that allocates to the single peso how government funds are to be used, by allocating P3 billion for the purchase of the faulty vaccine, which wasn’t in the program of the health department for 2016 or 2017. Aquino undertook a P3.5-billion program (P3 billion for the vaccine, P500 million for the costs of administering it on a mass scale) in April 2016, when he was scheduled to step down from power in June 2016. He was rushing, and I don’t think it was in order to save the lives of Filipino children.

We would be pretending to be fools if we believe Aquino, just because the smoking gun of his crime—his receiving hundreds of millions to buy the Dengvaxia—has not been found. If it was indeed a crime, it was an extremely negligent one which ignored the risks to life and health of one million Filipino children.