Manila: Former President Benigno Aquino and former cabinet members should be charged with corruption — their hasty purchase of P3.5 billion (Dh254 million) anti-dengue vaccines in 2016 favoured French manufacturer Sanofi at the expense of the Philippine government and more than 800,000 schoolchildren who were “not willing guinea pigs,” activists, columnists, parent-teacher associations, and lawmakers told Gulf News.
President Aquino ordered former health secretary Janette Garin to buy one million Dengvaxia from Sanofi Pasteur, and then asked former Budget Secretary Florencio Abad to source the purchase — after he (Aquino) met twice with Sanofi officials in Paris (the latest of which was on December 2, 2015) — “leading to the reasonable conclusion he extended favours to the company,” Ferdinand Topacio, counsel of the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption (VACC) told a joint hearing of the Senate Blue Ribbon and Health and Demography committees on Thursday.
On December 22, 2015, Garin led the Food and Drug Administration in approving the sale of Sanofi’s Dengvaxia. The FDA takes two years to approve new drugs, and longer for vaccines, Rigoberto Tiglao said in his column in Manila Times.
Since the anti-dengue campaign was not in the national budget for 2015 and 2016, former Budget secretary Abad issued on December 29, 2015, authorisation for the purchase of Dengvaxia, said Tiglao who has been following how the government paid for the vaccines.
In March 2016, the departments of education and local government issued memoranda allowing the participation of their respective personnel in the immunisation programme, including the use of “miscellaneous personnel benefit funds (or compensation for newly hired government employees)” which were allocated in the 2016 budgets, Garin explained in a congressional hearing last Monday.
Philippine Children’s Medical Center (PCMC) executive director Julious Lecciones also told a congressional hearing that Garin ordered him to purchase Dengvaxia from Sanofi. This was the reason why the health department was not listed as the prime buyer of Dengvaxia, Garin added.
The realignment of funds for the purchase of Dengvaxia, was authorised by the office of the president, through former executive secretary Paquito Ochoa, a budget official also said in a previous congressional hearing
Zuellig was licensed to sell Dengvaxia. “There was no public bidding for suppliers to submit their bids for the vaccine,” observed columnist Tiglao.
The Philippine government bought overpriced Dengvaxia vaccine. One million Dengvaxia at P3,5 billion means P3,500 (Dh254) per dosage. In comparison, Brazil bought Dengvaxia at $37 (P1,870) per dosage. An Indian company sold Dengvaxia at P9 per dose (Dh0.65), said Tiglao, citing Sanofi’s cases of allegedly bribing foreign government officials in the past.
Assessing Garin’s statement to GMA News on January 4, 2016, that Aquino got a 34 per cent discount for Dengvaxia when he met with Sanofi executives in Paris, Tiglao said in his column: “Was Garin confused, that the 34 per cent figure was actually the commission?”
“Officials of Sanofi must also be charged as co-conspirators,” suggested Topacio during Thursday’s congressional hearing.
Zuellig, Sanofi’s assigned distributor has “extensive knowledge of the country’s culture of corruption in government,” observed Wilson Lee Flores, columnist of Philippine Star.
In April 2016, the mass injection of 830,000 fourth-grade students with Dengvaxia started — at a time when dengue ranked not at the highest but “the ninth most prevalent disease,” said Tiglao.
“President Aquino could not have been unaware that the vaccination programme would take place in an election year,” observed Topacio, adding the vaccination happened “in areas where voting population was most concentrated”. He referred to central Luzon, southern Luzon, Metro Manila and Cebu, central Philippines.
“The alleged conspiracy is very clear,” Senator Richard Gordon, committee chairman, told Gulf News.
In July 2016, (three months after the mass vaccination in the Philippines), the World Health Organisation’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE) said Dengvaxia must be used in areas where 70 per cent of the population were infected with the dengue virus; and not to those without previous exposure to dengue virus.
In November 2017, the Philippine government suspended its dengue immunisation programme after Sanofi belatedly followed WHO’s warning.
Endemic in more than 100 countries, up from nine countries before 1970, half a million people are estimated to suffer from dengue and about 12,500 would die of dengue every year. Out of more than 211,000 dengue cases in the Philippines, more than 1,000 people died from the virus in 2016, the WHO said.