FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - December 4, 2017 - 4:00pm

This story about the purchase of P3.5 billion in dengue vaccine from a firm that has not completely tested the drug for safety is potentially explosive.

Investigations have just commenced. Witnesses are coming out of the woodwork. Meanwhile, the Department of Health suspended further administration of the vaccine to Grade 4 students.

From what we could make out of this story, the supplier Sanofi Pasteur issued an advisory cautioning against administration of the vaccine to children who had not yet been infected by dengue. On the face of it, this did not seem to make sense. Vaccines are supposed to preempt infection, not cure them. It was not supposed to be administered after infection had happened.

The French pharmaceutical company claims that no one has died from the 755,000 Filipino children vaccinated by the DOH. The program is supposed to cover a million Filipino children.

There are other claims, however. One is that three children died after being administered the vaccine.  All these should be threshed out as the rigorous investigation progresses.

The circumstances surrounding the purchase of this vaccine do seem odd.

It appears the dengue vaccination program was not planned by the DOH. After meeting at least twice with top officials of the French pharmaceutical company, former President Benigno Aquino III ordered the Health Department to purchase the vaccines and implement the immunization program. Thereafter, he ordered then Budget Secretary Butch Abad to find the money to pay for it.

Why Aquino, who has absolutely no training in pharmacy or in public health programs, appeared so enthused with the particular vaccine is curious to say the least. His order to purchase the vaccine appears to have been resisted by professionals at the DOH although no one dared contravene his order. Former congressman Janette Garin headed the Health Department at that time.

The drug has not been cleared by food and drug authorities in other jurisdictions at the time the decision was taken to purchase it. It certainly was not cleared by our own FDA, which usually takes years to review products. We saw that in the case of the birth control drugs covered by a Supreme Court restraining order. When the drugs where finally cleared last month, they were close to expiry.

The investigation should help us understand why the drugs were hurriedly purchased and the vaccination program hurriedly implemented. Was Aquino simply in a hurry to win credit for this program very late in his term?

What was the urgency for vaccinating a million Filipino children? None of us recall a rampaging dengue epidemic happening two or three years ago.

Why was this product chosen and then purchased in such large quantities? Was the procurement law observed? Were public funds illegally commandeered from other agencies as has been the case with the unconstitutional Disbursement Acceleration Program unique to the Aquino administration?

 Usually, before embarking on a massive vaccination campaign, the Health Department undertakes pilot programs. Pilot programs test the receptivity of intended beneficiaries as well as the efficacy of the drug. Why was this not done in the case of the dengue vaccine now under question?

Sanofi Pasteur claims they have been developing the vaccine over the past 20 years. That statement does not reassure. The fact they subsequently issued a warning after the vaccine was injected to 750,000 Filipino children tells us the tests are not yet complete.

Are Filipino children being used as guinea pigs by a giant pharmaceutical company? Why did our authorities, former president Aquino no less, agree to this? The first task of government should be to protect our people.

Was the vaccine overpriced? Initial information suggests the Philippine government paid much more for the vaccine than other countries – even if we purchased a surprisingly large quantity of the product. One source says the DOH purchase, brokered by Aquino no less, saved the French company from bankruptcy. The investigation should prove the accuracy of this claim.

Finally, was this vaccine deal tainted by corruption? The inflated price tag, the hasty process of procuring the vaccine, the absence of pilot testing, the commandeering of funds from other agencies all strongly suggest this.

 Although controversy over this deal has been raging for at least a week now, we have heard nothing from former president Aquino or from former health secretary Garin. Every new piece of information emerging seems to implicate both of them.

The Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption (VACC) filed a complaint with the DOJ yesterday. That should hasten the investigation. But it could also politicize the process.

There is growing outrage. Tens of thousands of parents are anxious over the possible effects the incompletely tested vaccine might have on their children. They so willingly acceded to have their children immunized. Now they are told the vaccine could cause the children harm.

Whoever is responsible for this mess that puts our children in danger should pay for it – both for the corruption that happened and the peril that has been disseminated.

From what we know so far, Benigno Aquino III appears to be the prime mover of the deal. He should tell us how this idea for mass immunization struck him. He should tell us why he ordered this costly purchase for an untested drug that now appears hazardous to our young.

This is not the first time Aquino is being accused of taking Filipino lives lightly. If wrongdoing on his part is established in this case, all his other sins will pale in comparison.

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