WHAT a difference a dinner in Paris can make.
Faced with incontrovertible proof that her earlier denials were untrue, former Health secretary Janette Garin finally admitted that she had dinner with officials from the French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi in Paris in May 2015 to discuss plans to buy Dengvaxia, its anti-dengue vaccine—at the time still an experimental drug—for widespread use in the Philippines.
On Garin’s watch, the country eventually bought P3.5 billion worth of the drug from Sanofi, and began the world’s first large-scale anti-dengue vaccination program. This month, however, the Department of Health suspended the program after Sanofi warned that Dengvaxia could worsen symptoms for vaccinated people who contracted the disease for the first time. By this time, more than 700,000 people, including schoolchildren aged nine and up had already received Dengvaxia shots as part of a nationwide school immunization program that Garin had set up rapidly.
Garin has since been trying to duck responsibility, first claiming that the World Health Organization had signed off on the vaccination program, then saying that her predecessor had begun talks about dengue immunization as early as 2010.
But at every step of the way, Garin seems to stumble upon a troublesome obstacle—the truth. Such is the case with her 2015 meeting with Sanofi officials.
In her own defense, Garin said she could not recall the meeting when she was first asked about it because it happened two years ago.
Fortunately, her memory was jogged by a detailed Department of Foreign Affairs report that said Garin met with Sanofi officials during her May 2015 trip to Paris to discuss the Dengvaxia vaccine. The report also said Sanofi gave Garin and her delegation a tour of a dengue facility in Lyon, Eastern France.
During her visit, the DFA report said, Garin met the vice president in charge of the dengue vaccine program, Sanofi’s senior director for vaccination policy and advocacy, and Sanofi’s country manager in the Philippines. At those meetings, Sanofi promised to finish a cost and pricing proposal for the Philippines by June 2015.
Garin last week insisted there was no malice in her actions back in 2015, then tried to pass on the responsibility for the program to her predecessor Enrique Ona, saying talks on the planned dengue vaccination program began as early as 2010.
Former Health undersecretary Ted Herbosa contradicted Garin’s claim, however, saying neither he nor Ona ever contemplated using the dengue vaccine because it was still experimental. This meant they would have to wait for the final results of the study and go through a long process of development.
But Garin, who announced she was pushing through with the vaccination program in January 2016, was in a hurry. Bidding was conducted March 9, 2016 and vaccines were delivered by March 18 and administered to hundreds of thousands of students beginning in April.
Contrary to Garin’s claims today that there was no malice in her actions, Herbosa correctly criticized her meeting with Sanofi officials in 2015, saying it was “highly inappropriate” for any government official to meet with suppliers before a bidding.
The WHO has also since denied Garin’s claim that it recommended the Philippines undertake the vaccination program, saying it never recommends solutions to a sovereign country but merely issues expert guidelines that countries may consider. The WHO also pointed out that Garin launched the vaccination program in April 2016, two weeks before WHO came up with its final report on the dengue vaccine.
With the truth quickly catching up with Garin, she can take some solace by telling herself that she will always have Paris. Given the mess that followed, however, that memory will probably be far from being a cherished one.