Duterte’s Dengvaxia probe should focus on corruption angle

By Getsy Tiglao

The seeming disinterest of President Rodrigo Duterte on the Dengvaxia scandal has been taken by some quarters as a sign that he supports the previous administration’s mass immunization campaign for dengue. But I think his uncharacteristic reserve has more to do with his lack of experience in dealing with medical and scientific issues, which is why he should focus more on the likelihood that corruption was at the root of this P3.5-billion deal to buy Dengvaxia.

Duterte has been keeping a distance from the issue, even saying that he won’t be quick to issue judgment as he ordered the creation of a three-man panel of foreign experts to study the vaccine. This has disheartened his supporters amid the unending reports of children who have died following inoculation with Dengvaxia.

The President’s cautiousness with the issue of the defective vaccine, at odds with his legendary spontaneity and preference for off-the-cuff remarks, was attributed by his spokesman to his background as a lawyer and public prosecutor. “He knows expert witnesses can cancel out each other’s testimonies,” said presidential spokesman Harry Roque.

He was referring to the difference in the findings between the Public Attorney’s Office and the Philippine General Hospital, although the two agencies conducted two different types of autopsies, with the PGH more limited compared with the PAO’s ongoing autopsies of the public school children who died after receiving Dengvaxia.

So far, the PAO forensics team has conducted autopsies on over 60 children and found that they suffered from internal organ bleeding, edema, and hemorrhages, which are the known side effects of Dengvaxia particularly if given to children who were seronegative or hadn’t had dengue but were still given the vaccine.

The PAO has already filed criminal complaints against former health secretary Janette Garin and other former Aquino officials, on behalf of the parents of the dead school children. Garin and former President Benigno Aquino III are also facing separate criminal charges over the alleged anomalies in the Dengvaxia purchase.

Duterte has declared that the eradication of corruption in government is among his administration’s major goals. Thus we urge the President to look into this case which has several red flags pointing at a possible corruption and seeming collusion with a foreign drug manufacturer.

One red flag was the speed in which the vaccine was purchased, its “undue haste” as described by the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee draft report after conducting hearings on the issue. Despite the objections of local and international experts, who warned against the new Dengvaxia vaccine, Garin and Aquino rushed the purchase as well as the roll-out of the program just a month before the May, 2016, elections.

The Senate report also said “the purchase was also done without adequate research on the background and track record of the supplier, Sanofi-Pasteur.” Indeed, the French-owned Sanofi has been involved in several bribery and corruption cases in Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.

Another red flag was the meetings of Aquino and Garin with Sanofi officials. This was so unusual, top government officials meeting with suppliers abroad. After Aquino’s second meeting with Sanofi in December, 2015, in Paris, he ordered Garin to rush the order for the new vaccine.

In just a few weeks, Garin was able to fast-track Dengvaxia through the Food and Drug Administration which she headed even though the FDA normally takes two years before it gives approval for any new drug, much less a vaccine that acts as a primary infection inside the body.

Just seven days after the FDA approval, the Budget Department under Butch Abad issued the SARO or authorization for the purchase of the P3.5-billion vaccine. This was a violation of the country’s laws as only Congress has the authority to determine the use of government funds.

In April, 2016, just a month before the presidential elections, the mass inoculation of 800,000 fourth-grade public school children was undertaken in various regions. This in itself with its timing was seen as a a form of campaigning, a violation of the election laws.

The P3.5-billion price tag of Dengvaxia is another red flag that Duterte with his international sources could look into. Sanofi-Pasteur reportedly overpriced the vaccine sold to Aquino at P3,000 per dosage compared with its price of P1,871 per dosage as sold to the Brazilian government. Was this really a matter of overpricing a stupid naïve government or was there corruption here?