After six years of watching the Aquino administration, I was convinced that I already knew where all the bodies were buried. Then the Dengvaxia scandal exploded and I knew this was bigger than anything I had heard about.
Consider the facts as we know them: Noynoy Aquino, his health secretary Janet Garin and his budget and other officials, in the space of a little over year since the first contact with officials of a giant French pharmaceutical company, were able to swing a P3.5 billion purchase of anti-dengue vaccines to inoculate up to 1,000,000 Filipino schoolchildren.
According to Senator Richard Gordon, one of the very few original opposers of the “midnight” purchase, the Dengvaxia vaccines purchased by the Philippine government near the end of 2015 cost nearly double all other vaccines purchased by health officials for that entire year. And yet, Sanofi Pasteur, the big pharma company that manufactured Dengvaxia, was able to pull off the purchase in record time with the help of a government that was supposedly notorious for sitting on each and every deal.
After at least three face-to-face meetings, Aquino and Sanofi sealed the deal, with the Philippine president making an unscheduled meeting in Paris late in 2015 to give the final go-ahead, in the presence of top Cabinet officials, including Garin, Budget Secretary Florencio Abad and Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya. Back home, Garin, wearing two hats as the proponent of the immunization program as secretary of health and concurrent officer-in-charge of the regulatory Food and Drug Administration (the agency in charge of approving pharmaceutical products, among others) quickly gave the go-ahead. Congress was enlisted in the dengue immunization project, granting its consent for such a strange purchase so late in the administration’s term, using a DAP-like system to divert appropriated funds to the National Children’s Memorial Center as the implementing agency.
And then, the vaccine was given to a total of 730,000 second-grade children, whose parents were not asked to approve of the vaccination, in three populous regions. There was no testing for prior dengue infection—a key requirement for Dengvaxia vaccination —or even questioning of the parents or the children about previous infection.
The highly-suspicious three-dose immunization program was carried out successfully with a bare minimum of media scrutiny. What little criticism was drowned out by the coming 2016 national elections and a propaganda campaign that painted the massive Dengvaxia deployment as the silver bullet against an old predatory disease spread by mosquitos.
Warnings from reputable groups like the World Health Organization were ignored. Concerns aired by other countries that had also been considering the use of the vaccine – but which didn’t – were left unreported.
It was only after Sanofi Pasteur admitted last week that people given the vaccine who were “seronegative” (or who did not have the dengue virus in their bloodstream indicating previous infection) were at risk of contracting severe, organ-damaging and potentially fatal hemorrhagic dengue, did the story finally broke. And all hell broke loose.
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What seems clear is that one million Filipino schoolchildren were used as lab rats by a big pharmaceutical company with the enthusiastic support of their own government. After all, the only reason why Sanofi Pasteur needed to make a deal like they did with the Aquino administration was because other countries that were also considering the vaccine were asking the French pharma for massive—and prohibitively expensive—clinical trials that only a Third World country could provide.
After spending billions of euros developing Dengvaxia, Sanofi was not going let all its research and development be stalled by inadequate field trials. There were so many markets that were willing to pay a lot more than the cost of holding an illicit, Constant Gardener-type of drug trial that could endanger so many innocent Filipino children.
The Dengvaxia scandal is only starting to unfold. There are so many more angles that need to be investigated—including how the continuation of the immunization program was made possible in the Duterte administration with the help of congressmen who allegedly dangled the confirmation of Health Secretary-designate Paulyn Ubial in exchange.
This is just the start of a long and terribly distressing story that will destroy the public lives of many, just like the vaccine itself has the potential to ruin or even kill so many poor Filipino children. This is, after all, the biggest public health crisis this country has ever known—and possibly worst crime perpetrated by the Aquino administration on the people.
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The award for the most opportunistic politician in the wake of the Dengvaxia controversy should be given, hands down, to Vice President Leni Robredo. Robredo called for a probe of those involved—perhaps forgetting that the people who get her elected would be the subject of any investigation.
But maybe Robredo is already distancing herself from Aquino and his government. The fallout for her could be the political equivalent of being injected with an untested vaccine.