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Thursday, June 20, 2024

Two actors, two roles

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There are two main actors in the raging Dengvaxia scandal: One is the French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi Pasteur, maker of the controversial vaccine, while the other is the previous Philippine government of Noynoy Aquino that implemented the massive vaccination program using the drug.

Sanofi’s involvement concerns medical and ethical issues that must be addressed by the drug-maker, which sold P3.5 billion worth of Dengvaxia to the Philippines in order to allegedly conduct a large-scale but covert clinical trial that was necessary for final approval of the vaccine for use in most world markets. Executives of Sanofi and its medical experts must reply to the charges that they endangered hundreds of thousands of Filipino children with a vaccine that they admitted recently could actually cause severe dengue fever in those who had not yet been infected with the mosquito-borne virus.

Intimately linked with questions about Sanofi’s culpability —but totally distinct from it—is the role played by Aquino and his officials, who acted with undue haste to administer the controversial vaccine to those same children, despite the lack of solid medical proof of the efficacy and safety of the drug for use in such a large population. Aquino and his men must be called to explain allegations that corruption and official neglect may have attended the Dengvaxia rollout, thus making them as liable as Sanofi in the eyes of the law.

Why should the medical and ethical issues be separated from the charges of corruption and official incompetence? Simple: Sanofi is a huge pharma company that should be responsible for its products and the manner by which it develops, evaluates and sells them.

And while the Aquino administration also has a responsibility to ensure that Dengvaxia is safe and efficacious, through its public health agencies, that is not its primary role in the controversy. The government’s job is making sure that it followed the laws on allowing the vaccine to be used in the Philippines, its procurement and its deployment through the Department of Health and the schools that it uses for its immunization programs.

In other words, Sanofi should answer the medical and other related questions raised concerning its controversial product. The Aquino administration needs to explain how and why it approved Dengvaxia’s actual use in this country, which is its responsibility alone.

No matter how many times Sanofi executives met with Aquino, after all, to persuade him to purchase its vaccine, it was still Noynoy’s administration that approved Dengvaxia’s use here. It was the government that found the public funds to buy the vaccine and administer it as quickly as it did, thus belying accusations that it never acts acts with dispatch as a general rule on anything—not in war, in calamity or any other emergency situation.

The reason I want to make this obvious but all-important distinction is because I don’t want us to get bogged down in the medical issues related to the development and testing of Dengvaxia. That is what Sanofi and its medical experts need to explain, with no help at all from its enablers in Noynoy’s government.

And any investigation of Aquino, his health secretary Janet Garin, budget secretary Florencio Abad and other officials involved in the controversy should focus solely on the fast-tracking of the approvals for the purchase of the vaccine and its immediate inclusion in the national immunization program.

Conflating the roles of these two actors will only add to the confusion that will benefit both of them. And in the end, given the deep pockets of the French drug company and the propaganda savvy of Noynoy and his minions, it’s actually possible that they may get off scot-free in the shuffle.

That is not how this story should end. The only acceptable denouement is the punishment of the guilty – both in the executive suites and laboratories of Sanofi and in the halls of power in the previous government.

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It is worth noting that Aquino’s political allies have finally broken their silence on the dengue vaccination scandal that has swept the nation since last weekend. One after the other, Noynoy’s Liberal Party henchmen declared yesterday that while they were in favor of ferreting out the truth, President Rodrigo Duterte should not to “politicize” the investigation of the matter.

Of course, it would be stupid—even for LP members—to say that they are against the discovery of the truth in the Dengvaxia scandal. But the second part of their statement needs to be discussed in further detail.

It should be pretty obvious to anyone—yes, including to LP members—that the Dengvaxia vaccination program did not involve anyone in the political opposition at the time. In other words, it cannot help but be partisan, because it was a program of the Aquino administration and of the Aquino administration alone.

True, the Duterte administration continued the vaccination program through its own Department of Health. But that doesn’t make Duterte and his people culpable because they were merely continuing a program that should enjoy a presumption of regularity—until Sanofi blew the lid off the whole scheme by making its voluntary admission on the dangers of the vaccine last week.

It’s the LPs who are injecting politics into the equation, in a bid to protect Aquino and his officials. And politics was probably farthest from the minds of Noynoy, Garin, Abad and the rest when they made that deal with Sanofi.


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