Aquino facing double whammy
Charged for Dengvaxia deal along with Garin
A PANEL of Justice department prosecutors will investigate the criminal charges filed against former President Benigno Aquino III and 19 others over the reported deaths of children inoculated with the anti-dengue Dengvaxia vaccine as leftist lawmakers said those who rushed the vaccination of more than 800,000 schoolchildren should answer for their crimes.
Representatives Carlos Zarate of Bayan Muna and Emmi de Jesus of Gabriela party-list said Aquino and his officials who rushed the approval of the P3.5-billion purchase of the vaccine from Sanofi Pasteur of France should be the ones answerable.
“But it should not stop there. Charges should also be filed against the officials of the present Duterte administration who continued the Dengvaxia program despite questions already raised by health professionals and advocates. This lack of concern and prudence also caused the mass vaccination of many more children even under the present administration,” Zarate said.
De Jesus hit the current administration for failing until now to produce a master list of the children who were inoculated with Dengvaxia.
“How can we expect this regime to live up to its overemphasized concern for the affected children?” she said.
The two lawmakers spoke as Aquino testified at the joint hearing of the House committees on good government and public accountability, and on health, about the controversial vaccination program that began under his administration.
During the hearing, Aquino said the Sanofi Pasteur fed him the misleading information on Dengvaxia.
“There was a briefer that was given to me on this issue, and there it was written that they developed this vaccine that was good for all serotypes because of the possibility of a more serious infection if you had been infected by another strain before that,” Aquino said in Filipino.
“Sanofi’s promise was if you administer the vaccine four times, there is no longer the risk of a more serious infection,” he added.
But in November 2017, Aquino said, Sanofi Pasteur released an advisory against the use of Dengvaxia on patients who had not been exposed to the dengue virus, as they could develop a more serious infection in the long run.
“That’s the opposite of what they said at first,” Aquino said, adding that he, too, would have suspended the dengue vaccination program had he known Sanofi would change its tune.
Aquino is facing a graft complaint before the Office of the Ombudsman, along with were former Health secretary Janette Garin, former Budget secretary Florencio Abad, former executive secretary Paquito Ochoa, Sanofi Pasteur vice president Guillaume Leroy, Sanofi Pasteur chief executive officer Olivier Brandicourt, Sanofi Pasteur medical director Ruby Dizon, Sanofi Pasteur Asia-Pacific head Thomas Triomphe, and Sanofi-Aventis Philippines Country head Carlito Realuyo.
The complainants—parents De Jesus, Arlene Brosas, and Joan May Salvador of Gabriela, and Madella Santiago—accused the respondents of violating the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act.
The complainants — parents, Gabriela Women’s Party Representatives Emerenciana de Jesus and Arlene Brosas, Joan May Salvador of Gabriela and Madella Santiago—accused the respondents of “As former president, respondent Benigno Simeon C. Aquino, had power and control over the affairs of the state and the acts and decisions of his Cabinet members and other executive officials. He cannot feign ignorance and claim that he made the decision to unburden his ‘bosses’ from the dreaded disease. The fact remains that whether he acted in conspiracy with Sanofi officials or miserably failed to exercise sound judgment or discretion, the lives of more than 800,000 children are now at risk because of his acts,” the complainants said.
The Justice department panel, meanwhile, will conduct a preliminary investigation on the complaint filed earlier this month by anti-corruption groups Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption and Vanguard of the Philippine Constitution Inc.
The panel, headed by Senior Assistant State Prosecutor Rossane Balauag, will conduct the probe and determine the existence of evidence to pin down Aquino and other respondents in the Dengvaxia mess.
The members of the panel include Senior Assistant State Prosecutor Hazel Decena Valdez and Asst. State Prosecutors Consuelo Corazon Pazziuagan and Gino Paolo Santiago.
The VACC and VPCI filed their complaint for multiple homicide and physical injuries, malversation of public funds, and violations of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, and the Government Procurement Reform Act against Aquino, former and incumbent officials of the Department of Health, and pharmaceutical firms Sanofi Pasteur and Zuellig, ahead of conclusive findings by government agencies on whether the reported deaths of children inoculated with Dengvaxia were caused by the vaccine.
The complaint also named as respondents Abad; Garin; incumbent DoH undersecretaries Carol Tanio, Gerardo Bayugo, Lilibeth David and Mario Villaverde; retired undersecretaries Nemesio Gako, Vicente Belizario Jr. and Kenneth Hartigan-Go; assistant secretaries Lyndon Lee Suy and Nestor Santiago; former financial management service director Laureano Cruz; incumbent DOH directors Joyce Ducusin, May Wynn Belo, Leonila Gorgolon, Rio Magpantay, Ariel Valencia and Julius Lecciones; and Garin’s former executive assistant Yolanda Oliveros.
Also in the charge sheet were the senior executives of French pharmaceutical firm Sanofi Pasteur, the developer and manufacturer of Dengvaxia; and Zuellig Pharma, DoH’s supplier of the vaccine.
Earlier this month, the VACC also filed a complaint for violation of election laws before the Commission on Elections against Aquino and the other former officials also in relation to the Dengvaxia controversy.
The DOH suspended the implementation of the controversial P3.5-billion dengue vaccine program in December 2017 after Sanofi announced that those who had not been exposed to dengue before could develop more severe infections if they were injected with the drug.
Before the House panels, Aquino said the Dengvaxia issue should be best left with experts to avoid unfounded fear and panic among the public even as he appealed to critics to stop politicizing the issue.
Aquino attended the congressional hearing with Abad and Garin.
Also present during the hearing were former Internal Revenue Commissioner Kim Henares, ex-Presidential Peace Adviser Teresita Deles, and former Social Welfare secretary Corazon Soliman.
Without naming names, Aquino assailed a forensic expert who keeps on talking on the issue to the point of politicizing it.
“We know that politics has entered the picture,” Aquino said in Filipino.
“This is painful. Everybody has an opinion, qualified or not, especially someone who makes a lot of noise but whose certification is just one level above a diploma you can buy on Recto Avenue,” he said, apparently referring to the Public Attorneys Office forensics chief, Dr. Erwin Erfe, who has been conducting autopsies on Dengvaxia recipients who later died.
At the same hearing, PAO chief Persida Rueda-Acosta took up the cudgels for Erfe, who was appointed to her office in 2004, noting that Erfe obtained his certification in public financial management from John F. Kennedy School of Government in Harvard University.
Aquino said President Rodrigo Duterte was right to suspend the vaccination program after the November 2017 advisory from Sanofi. He said he would have done the same thing were he still president.
Abad, meanwhile, said the release of P3.5 billion to buy Dengvaxia from Sanofi was aboveboard.
“The use of savings is a constitutional provision,” Abad said. “When you declare savings, you’ll need to secure the approval of president,” he told the joint hearing, noting that the fund came from the Miscellaneous Personnel Benefits Fund.
The funding for Dengvaxia was not included in the 2015 General Appropriations Act, and came from savings.
Abad said the savings could be used to augment a “deficient” item in the appropriations program. It means “there has to be an existing [budgetary] item [for a particular program],” Abad said.
Abad pointed out that the use of MPBF complies with the Supreme Court’s decision in the controversial Disbursement Acceleration Program which provided for the appropriate use of annual savings.
“Based on the GAA of 2015 and the Supreme Court decision, the MPBF is recognized as a legitimate source of savings,” he said.
Aquino told lawmakers said that his administration had to exercise the authority given to him by Congress to tap the savings to fund the dengue program since it would have taken too long had he asked Congress to approve a supplemental budget.
“Can we just turn our backs and tell the people, ‘Sorry but you just have to wait for the next administration [for the vaccines to be funded], just wait for the next [annual] budget. That’s what we couldn’t stomach,” Aquino said.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, who suspended the program in December, said it was time to stop pointing fingers in the Dengvaxia controversy, and said a prolonged congressional probe could hurt the government’s overall vaccination program.
“We have to be mindful of the implications of a very prolonged investigation on this... Let’s not add to the confusion and the divide. No issue has divided the public as much as Dengvaxia,” Duque said.
Buhay Rep. Lito Atienza, who filed a House resolution to relaunch the Dengvaxia probe, echoed Duque’s sentiments, saying that it is better to let the courts hear the case considering that criminal complaints had already been lodged against Aquino and several of his former officials.
“We are here to pinpoint responsibility and accountability of public officials. But based on the statements being issued by the officials involved, it is clear that this is going nowhere. We will just argue,” Atienza said.
“Let’s give them a chance to get heard in court. Rather than spend time in this hearing, let us listen to them answer the charges in court,” Atienza added.
Atienza said there was “clear conspiracy” during the Aquino administration in the procurement of the Dengvaxia vaccines made by Sanofi Pasteur.
“If dengue started to worsen as far back as 2010-2012, why did they not put enough funds for this? How did they know that Dengvaxia would be the solution and Sanofi the firm to talk to?” Atienza said in Filipino.
“They did not really act according to what is best for Filipinos. It would be better if they answer in court. Once proven that they abused their power, they would get jailed and if indeed corruption happened, they would rot in jail,” he added.
At the same committee hearing, health reform advocate Dr. Anthony Leachon accused French pharmaceutical firm Sanofi Pasteur of concealing safety issues.
“You have here a problem of concealment of data, particularly of safety,” Leachon said. “This is a great sin to the Filipino nation considering that this was a program of the government.”
Leachon said the certificate of product registration for Dengvaxia is for prescription basis only and not for mass vaccination.
“There was hasty mass vaccination based on the FEC [Formulary Executive Council]. You have here a classic regulatory capture in which the companies would influence the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] and FEC,” said Leachon.
FDA director-general Nela Charade Puno, who was also present in the same hearing, said the special FDA task force found that Sanofi was given accommodation despite non-compliance with FDA standards.
Puno noted that the French drug firm kept on changing the risk management plan (RMP) which violates its post-marketing commitment.
“It is a mortal sin... When you keep changing your RMP, most of the time other countries cancel the distribution and selling of this medicine,” Puno added.
Dengvaxia, which was purchased during the Aquino administration in 2015, was later reported to pose risks to those who have not been previously infected by the virus.
The DoH has stopped the implementation of the anti-dengue vaccine drive in December 2017. With PNA