VENGEANCE is not in his attitude, President Rodrigo Duterte said Thursday, as he shot down calls to slap charges on his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, who is being investigated for a controversial P3.5-billion anti-dengue inoculation program for more than 700,000 school-aged children implemented during his term.
“To be filing cases against a former President, hindi ko ugali ‘yang ganun [that’s not in my character],” Duterte told his colleagues in the ruling PDP-Laban party Wednesday night during a benefit Christmas dinner for victims of the recent terrorist-led siege of Marawi City.
Aquino, the former President, remained mum on Duterte’s position not to file cases against him or officials of the previous administration.
“No comment,” Aquino told reporters at the Senate, where he testified in defense of his decision to purchase the dengue vaccine Dengvaxia and allowing immunizations to proceed a month before the May 2016 elections.
Testifying before a joint Senate committee hearing on the dengue vaccine program, Aquino said he gave the green light to procure Dengvaxia using the government’s “unutilized” funds for 2015 since the savings were set to expire at the end of that year.
“If by Dec. 31, you do not utilize these unutilized funds, it reverts to the national treasury, then how do you fund it? You can go and ask for a supplemental budget, which requires new sources of revenue,” Aquino told the Senate Blue Ribbon and Health and Demography committee members.
The Department of Health has said at least 830,000 public school students have been vaccinated with Dengvaxia in Metro Manila, Central Luzon, Calabarzon, and Cebu province.
Aquino said his administration began to focus on dengue after he received a memo in 2010 from former Health secretary Enrique Ona highlighting the five regions that reported alarming surges in dengue cases. Around 2.8 million people were at risk of contracting dengue then, he added.
Aquino said no one objected to the program before, during and after its implementation.
“I have stressed that before the government decided on Dengvaxia, while deciding on it, after making a decision and until now, nobody had objected to the vaccine,” he said.
The former President said he would have been made to answer a different kind of issue by critics if his government failed to address the spike in dengue cases.
“If what Sanofi said did not come out, and I decided to just let my bosses suffer, I supposed you [would] have a different question and charges against me—why did you abandon the Filipinos?” he told the senators.
Aquino also admitted he went to Paris in 2015 for the COP21 conference, and at the sidelines, he had meetings with different companies, including with officials of Sanofi.
He said the vaccine went through “local and international processes,” noting the United States Food and Drug Administration has been regulating the international clinical trials.
“Since it passed through this process, Dengvaxia is also safe for the public,” Aquino said.
“I also stressed: It was not only the Philippines which approved Dengvaxia. Mexico and Brazil did it ahead of us,” he noted.
Senate Blue Ribbon committee chairman Senator Richard Gordon said he had no questions on Aquino’s credibility, amid doubts on the speedy approval of the vaccine’s procurement.
“I supposed the dengue vaccine, so it was immediately approved by the FDA, it immediately got a SARO [special allotment release order] that warranted the purchase of the vaccine,” Gordon said.
“Well, again, I’m sorry Mr. President, that it was a coincidence. You had a meeting in Paris on Dec. 1 and then this immediately arrived, and the SARO was immediately received and the money was later released,” Gordon said.
The SARO for the purchase of the vaccine was issued on Dec. 29, 2015, almost three weeks after Aquino’s meeting with Sanofi Pasteur officials in Paris on Dec. 9.
Health advocate Dr. Anthony Leachon defended Aquino, asking how could the former President be held liable when he was fed with wrong information.
“I was asked the other day, whether the ex-President and secretary of Health [Janette Garin] is liable for this one. My answer is basically, if the bad science or wrong information has been fed to the president, how could you blame the President if he was fed by wrong information and even WHO [World Health Organization] or even (former Health Secretary Janette) Garin?” Leachon said.
Leachon, also an independent director of the government-run Philippine Health Insurance Corp., said the problem was that when the dengue crisis was brought to the President, he thought there was a sense of urgency involved.
“So, you cannot mix your science and your health with politics, but it all started with deceptive or wrong information sir,” he told the Senate hearing.
Dr. Antonio Dans of the National Academy of Science and Technology also said the situation was borne from “bad science mixed with politics.”
“Because there was no policy to separate politics and science, the FDA is under the DoH, then we lose the check and balances. FDA should be independent from DoH,” Dans said.
At the same hearing, Thomas Triomphe, Sanofi Pasteur’s head for Asia-Pacific, told senators there is no “worldwide” scare over the Dengvaxia vaccine, which continues to be marketed and used in 10 other countries.
“It is important for the public to understand that the vaccine continues to be good, effective and safe,” Triomphe said. “There is no reason for public panic.”
Triomphe also said Sanofi Pasteur is ready to “collaborate and reengage” with the Department of Health in the investigations and review of the government’s dengue immunization program.
Still, the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption said it recommended filing plunder charges against Aquino.
VACC counsel Ferdinand Topacio said the group made this call after noting that Aquino and other Cabinet members during the previous administration “accumulated millions of pesos worth of ill-gotten wealth” from purchasing the vaccine.
Along with Aquino, the anti-crime group recommended plunder charges against former Budget secretary Butch Abad, Garin, and other Health officials.
In another development, Philippine National Police Director General Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa ordered the monitoring of at least 14,000 police personnel who were inoculated with the controversial vaccine produced by Sanofi Pasteur.
Dr. Reimound Sales, PNP General Hospital chief, previously announced that the first batch of policemen across the country were inoculated in September, while the second batch was immunized during the PNP Health Service 24th anniversary last Nov. 21. These prompted Dela Rosa’s order, he said.
“To those unfortunately vaccinated by this [program], I am giving instructions to Dr. [Edward] Carranza, director of [the PNP] Health Service, to monitor everything. I would be sorry if something happened [to the policemen],” Dela Rosa said after visiting wounded policemen at the PNP hospital in Camp Crame.