By Ellson Quismorio
Former President Benigno S. Aquino III on Monday said he would’ve discontinued the government’s Dengvaxia-based anti-dengue fever inoculation program if he was still in power by the time the new, crucial information about the vaccine came to light.
Aquino gave this statement before members of the joint House panel inquiry on the purchase of some P3 billion worth of Dengvaxia vaccines by his administration. The participating panels were the House Committees on Good Government and Public Accountability, and on Health.
Camarines Sur Rep. Gabriel Bordado Jr. (3rd District), in his interpellation of Aquino, wanted to know if the latter would’ve stopped the mass vaccination himself had he been in a position to do so.
“If you were still the President, would you have cancelled the vaccination program?”Bordado asked Aquino, who stepped down as Chief Executive on June 30, 2016.
Aquino answered by saying that he would’ve stopped the program had he known the November, 2017 findings of French multinational pharmaceutical company Sanofi Pasteur, the makers of Dengvaxia, that the vaccine could have adverse effects on seronegative patients – basically the individuals who have never contracted dengue before.
Aquino, who repeatedly pointed out in his answers that he was neither a doctor nor a medical expert, said he was made to believe by Sanofi that Dengvaxia would “induce the body to create anti-bodies” and that it would cover “four sero-types.”
“Kaya dinevelop yung vaccine na good for four sero-types ay dahil ngayung posibilidad na mas malalang impeksyon kapag na-impeksyon ka ng ibang strain after nung una (That’s why a vaccine good for four sero-types was developed was because of the possibility of getting a worse infection if you get infected by a different strain after the first),” he said.
“Ngayon po noong November, 2017, bigla na lang iba na ata ang sinasabi, nadag dagan bigla, na kung hindi ka pa na-impeksyon dati, pwedeng lumala itong impeksyon na susunod (Now in November 2017, they suddenly changed their tune, they added all of a sudden that if you haven’t been infected before, then it might worsen your case if you do get infected),” Aquino noted.
It’s like there’s no protection. It’s the opposite of what they said at first and I want to know the reason behind this. That’s a good reason, if I was still in charge I’d definitely stop it. Due to that doubt, due to their flip-flopping, it must be stopped,” the former President said in Filipino.
In April, 2016 or a month before the presidential elections, the Philippines became the first country in the world to launch a public inoculation plan against dengue using Dengvaxia.
Current Department of Health (DOH) Secretary Francisco Duque III suspended the program in December, 2017, or after an estimated 830,000 schoolchildren had received their Dengvaxia shots.
During the Monday hearing, Duque told the joint House panel that there are now 39 deaths among the vaccinated children. This is 10 more than the figure reported to the solons during the previous hearing last week.
Of the 39 fatalities, only 14 cases have been studied by DOH. Four of the 14 have “dengue fever markers”; only three were confirmed to have died from dengue fever.
Duque reckoned that not all of the deaths were related to the controversial anti-dengue vaccine, adding that the DOH’s investigation is ongoing.
He also said that there was no basis on the statement of the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) that the deaths of children were due to the government’s immunization program.
PAO chief, lawyer Persida Acosta, who is also involved in a separate investigation on the Dengvaxia mess, revealed to the panel that they can only file civil charges for now and not criminal charges.
“We are waiting for the recommendations of Congress,” she said.
Aquino’s message to grieving kin
Aquino was excused early by the joint panel as courtesy to a former president. But House reporters caught up with him before he could leave the premises.
Asked what his message was to the families of the kids who died after receiving Dengvaxia, the 58-year-old said he “condoled” with them.
“May kasabihan: Para magkaroon ng tamang solusyon, dapat magkaroon ng tamang pagunawa doon sa problema (There’s a saying: To get a proper solution, we should get a proper understanding of the problem),” he replied.
“Number one, I condole with those who lost loved ones. It would be good for us to find out the reason why their relatives died. And through that, we will correct the situation, am I right?” he said.
Aquino went on to ask the public to keep their emotions in check regarding the issue.
“Let us not get carried away by emotion, or by purely emotion. We may end up getting used here and in the end worsen the situation instead of improve it,” he added.
Aquino was joined in the hearing by members of his Cabinet, namely former Budget secretary Florencio“Butch”Abad, former Health secretary Janette Garin, former Internal Revenue Commissioner Kim Henares, former Presidential Peace Adviser Ging Deles, and former Social Welfare secretary Dinky Soliman.
Calm, rational approach
With this controversy, President Duterte has taken a “calm” and “rational” approach in seeking truth and accountability on the controversial anti-dengue vaccination program, Malacañang said Monday.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque tried to fend off speculations that the President has rushed to politicize the investigation into the dengue vaccine Dengvaxia.
“If it is, it is certainly not because of the President. The President has taken a very calm, a very rational approach to this,”Roque said during a Palace news conference when asked to comment on former President Aquino’s observation the Dengvaxia investigation has become highly politicized by some people.
“He has a made declaration that he understands why previous administration decided to use Dengvaxia having been a victim of dengue himself,” he added.
Nonetheless, Roque noted that the President expects the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to complete its investigation into the controversial anti-dengue immunization program.
“His continuing order is for the investigation, the NBI to continue and conclude it so we will find out if people should be criminally liable,” he said.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) has also formed a panel of prosecutors who will conduct the preliminary investigation over the criminal complaint filed against former President Aquino and his fellow respondents concerning the mess involving the anti-dengue vaccine Dengvaxia.
Acting Prosecutor General Jorge Catalan Jr. has issued an order which named four persons from the National Prosecution Service (NPS) who will comprise the panel.
Apart from Aquino, those who have been named as respondents in the complaint are three of his former Cabinet members, namely, former Budget secretary Abad and former Health Secretary Garin, and former and current DOH officials.
But President Dutertehad earlier said he was not prepared to condemn anyone on the dengue program, believing it was implemented in good faith. Duterte said if he was president then, he would have also implemented the program unless he was advised about the risks of the drug.
Roque, however, cautioned that Dengvaxia manufacturer Sanofi Pasteur and the past administration might face criminal and civil liability if proven they knew beforehand the risks of the vaccines.
“Did they know beforehand there would be adverse effects of Dengvaxia for those didn’t have dengue yet? Because if Sanofi and the government at the time knew about it, they might face not only civil liability but also criminal liability,” he said in Filipino.
Roque maintained that the public deserves to know the truth about the dengue vaccine program, including the reason behind the swift acquisition of the drugs.
“The public wants to know why the process of buying the drugs was apparently done in haste. It was completed in just a few days,” he added.
14,000 cops monitored
Meanwhile, Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Director General Ronald dela Rosa ordered the national police’s Health Service (PNP-HS) to strictly and continuously monitor the cops who were given Dengvaxia shots, the controversial dengue vaccine.
Dela Rosa admitted t he is also worried as even one of his closest family relatives was given the Dengvaxia along with the cops in September and November, 2017.
“We are currently conducting a wide-scale monitoring of the cops who were given Dengvaxia. Actually, even my younger sister who is in the (PNP) White House was injected,”Dela Rosa said, while requesting the media to keep the identity of his sister undisclosed.
“My sister has become sickly recently that’s why I am also personally monitoring her. It might be an effect of the [vaccine] but we’re not scientists so we cannot immediately conclude that it is somehow related to [Dengvaxia],” he explained.
According to the PNP-Health Service, about 14,000 cops were given Dengvaxia last year and up to date, they have not monitored any reported casualties within their ranks. (With reports from Genalyn D. Kabiling, Jeffrey G. Damicog, and Martin A. Sadongdong)