Former president Benigno Aquino III listens to resource persons after testifying at the Senate probe on the dengue vaccine. Geremy Pintolo, File

‘Noy need not appear in next Dengvaxia hearing’
Paolo Romero (The Philippine Star) - December 16, 2017 - 4:00pm

MANILA, Philippines — There is no need for former president Benigno Aquino III to attend the next Senate hearing on the P3.5-billion dengue vaccine controversy even if the inquiry has dug up enough evidence to charge those responsible for the “suspicious midnight transaction,” Sen. Richard Gordon said.

“We conducted the first two hearings without him. I already have a case,” Gordon told reporters Friday, a day after the former chief executive testified at the hearing.

Gordon claimed the inquiry has established a “conspiracy” to rush the purchase of the vaccine in 2015, specifically in the last few months of the Aquino administration.

However, he was not very clear on whether the former president could be held accountable.

During the hearing, Aquino admitted the haste but stressed that he was then faced with two hard choices: that of giving the go-signal for the vaccination of a million children with Dengvaxia or wait until its efficacy is fully established.

Aside from Aquino, Gordon also does not see the need to call on the previous administration’s top officers – executive secretary Paquito Ochoa, budget chief Florencio Abad and health secretary Janette Garin – to the next hearing, which has yet to be scheduled.

Gordon chairs the Senate Blue Ribbon committee, which is conducting an inquiry jointly with the committee on health into the Aquino administration’s purchase of three million doses of Dengvaxia vaccine that its maker – French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi Pasteur – said poses life-threatening risks to those with no previous exposure to the virus.

He said the committee saw signs of possible irregularities or even plunder from the gathered documents and established timeline. These include a memo to Aquino recommending the realignment and release of P3.5 billion from the Miscellaneous Personnel and Benefits Fund of the 2015 budget to the vaccination program; the rush to list Dengvaxia in the national formulary and its registration with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The senator noted that bidding for the purchase of vaccines was already being conducted even when Dengvaxia had yet to be registered with the FDA.

“As I’ve said, there is a possible conspiracy. I even said it was up to the level of the President,” Gordon said.

He said the Office of the Ombudsman and the Department of Justice can pursue cases based on the evidence gathered by the Blue Ribbon committee.

Sen. Joseph Victor Ejercito, chairman of the health committee, said over dwIZ that he believes Aquino was “honest,” although he “cannot say the same thing about his men.”

Ejercito filed Senate Bill 1631 last week to detach the FDA from the Department of Health (DOH) and make it an independent agency under the Office of the President. He cited possible conflict of interest as the DOH that procures drugs in bulk also supervises the office that registers it.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque III backed this proposal and has called on the DOH executive committee to meet and discuss the agency’s stand on the bill.

“For me, I support that FDA should be independent so that it will not be permeable or vulnerable to political pressure,” he said in an interview.

Under the bill, the FDA would still be headed by a director general with the rank of a department secretary who would be a member of the Cabinet. The FDA head shall be appointed by the President and subject to confirmation of the Commission on Appointments.

Duque underscored in an interview with dzBB the need for health secretaries to heed the recommendations of the Formulary Executive Council (FEC), noting that it is comprised of experts in the fields of public health, science and health economics.

“Not because you are a health secretary, you are already an expert in all subject matters. We have to respect the expert opinions of FEC experts because we can rely on them,” he added.

The health chief noted that Garin pushed through with the mass use of Dengvaxia among school children although the FEC had not yet recommended it.

Garin has admitted that she consulted the DOH’s own program directors and other experts from the Philippine Society for Microbiology and Infectious Diseases and Philippine Pediatric Society Inc., which attested to the safety of the vaccine.

The FEC was created through Executive Order 49 issued by former president Fidel Ramos to determine which drugs could be included in the National Formulary, a list of drugs that the government can purchase and use.

‘OK sa DepEd’

Amid the controversy, the Department of Education (DepEd) has launched Oplan Kalusugan or OK sa DepEd, a program that aims to strengthen health programs for students and school personnel by consolidating all existing health-related initiatives in public schools nationwide.

Education Secretary Leonor Briones described the OK sa DepEd program as “a converging effort where health plans, policies, programs and activities are implemented to ensure that all school children are provided with basic primary health and dental care to allow them to attain their full educational potential.

“It will also ensure that all DepEd school health personnel and school children practice healthier behavior that they can do on their own, and get linked up with health providers and local government units for child and adolescent health services,” she added.

Existing programs that will be part of the umbrella policy include the school-based feeding program; drug education campaign; adolescent reproductive health education program; water, sanitation and hygiene program; and medical, dental and nursing services.

Also covered are other school health advocacy and support programs of DepEd such as the Gulayan sa Paaralan; healthy school environment; school-based immunization program; helminth control and mental health and psychosocial support for students and personnel.

Briones said the new policy will take full effect in July, in close collaboration with the DOH, local government units and various stakeholders at the local and national levels. – With Sheila Crisotomo, Janvic Mateo 

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