Senate probers to expand inquiry into P3.5-B dengue-vaccine mess

French pharmaceutical Sanofi’s revelation that its dengue vaccine poses risk of “serious disease” for recipients who never had previous infections prodded the resumption of a Senate investigation that earlier looked into the Department of Health’s (DOH) “undue haste” in sealing the Sanofi supply contract, Sen. Richard J. Gordon said over the weekend.

This, even as the chairman of the Senate Health and Demography committee, Sen. Joseph Victor G. Ejercito, bared plans to also call for an inquiry into the issue, most probably in January, as Congress is racing to finish its legislative agenda for the year before going on Christmas break on December 16.  Sessions will resume on January 15, 2018.

Ejercito said in an interview with DWIZ that the January schedule for an inquiry into the Dengvaxia fiasco will also allow time for more crucial information to be updated by the Department of Health (DOH) and the World Health Organization (WHO) to ensure a smoother flow of questioning.

On his Twitter account, Ejercito also explained: “Looking at January for a hearing on the dengue vaccine. Will let the experts and doctors and the DOH deal with the issue first, then will wait for their findings and recommendations.”

Health Secretary Francisco Duque III reported last Friday that a comprehensive surveillance effort was in place to separate the children who never had prior infections when they were vaccinated from those who had previous bouts with dengue before they received the vaccine.

Sanofi had admitted to French regulators last week that an expanded assessment of its clinical trials indicated that while the vaccine protects previously infected people from further dengue episodes, the so-called virgin recipients—those who had no prior infections—were at risk of “serious disease,” possibly from more virulent dengue strains, as a result of receiving the vaccine.

Possible joint inquiry

Ejercito raised the possibility of conducting joint hearings saying he will talk to other senators keen on inquiring into the issue, including Gordon, Senate Blue Ribbon Committee chairman, for a possible joint investigation to ensure a more comprehensive inquiry while avoiding duplications.In an interview with the BusinessMirror, Gordon said he initiated the inquiry early-2016 because he was alarmed by the serious monetary and health implications of the program.

The “inordinate haste” with which officials of the Aquino administration moved to approve the mass vaccination and ensure funds were available—even outside the DOH’s organic budget—smacked of a “conspiracy” with possible implications of “corruption,” Gordon added.

The Senate chief prober, however, was prompted to set aside temporarily the initial inquiry into what was seen to be a “midnight deal” during the previous administration due to the approaching May 2016 elections.

Gordon listed three issues that, he said, impelled his 2016 inquiry, citing first the alleged undue haste of which the Aquino administration, chiefly through then-Budget Secretary Florencio Abad and then-Health Secretary Janette Garin, had forged the contract.

Gordon said the Blue Ribbon probe was also on track to ascertain the potential danger for children of the “unproven and untested” vaccine.

The senator said Senate probers were also poised to look into the reportedly disproportionate cost for the Dengvaxia program—P3.5 billion—considering other diseases like Tuberculosis are killing more children than dengue.

Recalling the events leading up to the approval of the mass-vaccination program, Gordon pointed to media reports of a meeting in December 2015 between then-President Benigno S. Aquino III and Sanofi Pasteur officials, led by CEO Olivier Charmeil, who called on him at Hotel Scribe in Paris where he flew for the climate change summit.

This, noted Gordon, was Aquino’s second meeting with Sanofi officials, having met with them earlier in Beijing.

Aquino was accompanied at the Paris meeting by Garin, former  Finance Secretary Cesar V. Purisima, former Trade Secretary Gregory L. Domingo and former Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio A. Abaya.
Gordon pointed out that, soon after those two meetings, all steps were taken to ensure the vaccine program is approved by all relevant agencies, and funds set aside. No less than Abad helped look for funds for it, he added. Money for the Dengvaxia program was taken by the Department of Budget and Management from unobligated funds of other agencies, congressional probers learned later.

Ejercito, in a separate interview with DWIZ, said the Senate will ask the DOH to provide it with regular updates on the condition of thousands of persons injected with the dengue vaccine.

Ejercito did not rule out the possibility that Garin will also be invited for questioning by Senate probers to shed light on the controversial DOH deal.

“More likely [Garin will be summoned] because the transaction was consummated during the previous administration; but I don’t want to conclude anything,” Ejercito said. “We will give Secretary Garin a chance to clear the issues that will be raised in our inquiry.”

Meanwhile, the Justice department is set to look into the possible liabilities of the DOH and other government officials responsible for the controversial P3.5-billion dengue-vaccine project that has been found to cause health risks to children.

Justice Secretary Vitaliano N. Aguirre II last Sunday said he would tap the National Bureau of Investigation to conduct a fact-finding probe on the matter to hold those responsible for the project, which was initiated during the term of Aquino through Garin.

“I will prepare as soon as possible the appropriate department order. Everybody who has some involvement will be included and appropriate charges will be filed against them, if warranted,” he added.

Aguirre said he personally received a number of complaints from parents of children injected with the Dengvaxia vaccine.

“One complained to me that his son, who was inoculated of that antidengue vaccine in April 2016, is now sick of ‘baby TB,’ and his immune system is now very weak and has become a financial burden to them,” Aguirre said.

Based on the initial information reaching the Justice department, the program was approved by the Aquino administration and implemented strong objections from medical experts due to lack of certification from the WHO.

It was also learned that the DOH was properly warned about the possible effects of the first dengue vaccine to those who have not contracted dengue yet, but it still approved the program—apparently making Filipino children guinea pigs of a clinical test.

The Philippines was the first Asian country to approve this vaccine for individuals aged 9 to 45 years old in December 2015.

Duque has ordered the suspension of the dengue vaccination program pending recommendation on further action from experts from the World Health Organization.

With reports from Joel R. San Juan

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Butch Fernandez is BusinessMirror’s senior political reporter based at the Senate. He has covered Malacanang (3 presidencies), the Office of the Vice President, the Senate, local governments and defense since 1984.

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