“An abundance of malice and an absence of objectivity”. This is how Sen. Leila de Lima described the Blue Ribbon Committee Report in its investigation on the DOH dengue vaccination program under the Aquino and Duterte Administrations.
The dengue vaccine Dengvaxia produced by pharmaceutical company Sanofi Pasteur was administered to around 800,000 school children in Regions III, IV-A, VII and the National Capital Region. The program was investigated by the Senate Committee due to alleged deaths and severe illnesses occurring among school children as a result of the vaccination. After seven hearings, the Committee chaired by Sen. Richard Gordon came out with a report recommending the filing of graft charges against former President Benigno Aquino III and former Health Secretary Janette Garin, among others.
In her dissenting report filed last Monday, De Lima said that the Committee Report distorted facts on the role of former Health Secretary Enrique Ona in the Aquino Administration’s plans to use the dengue vaccine. According to her, this was done in an effort to make it appear that the idea to use the vaccine solely came from Aquino and Garin for purposes of helping the Liberal Party win the 2016 presidential elections. De Lima observed in her dissenting report that as early as 2010, the plan to consider the use of the dengue vaccine was already on the table due to the 1,400 percent increase of dengue cases in one region. For the next four years, the DOH under Ona updated itself on the development of the vaccine for its possible use, even receiving briefings from Sanofi Pasteur, especially on the clinical trials conducted in the Philippines.
De Lima added that the report also made it appear that Sec. Ona was forced to resign by Aquino because he objected to the roll-out of the vaccine. She said that the reason behind Ona’s resignation was clear in the transcripts of the hearing. It had nothing to do with Dengvaxia. De Lima said that despite this, the Committee Report still considered Ona’s resignation a “mystery”, and maliciously tied it to Aquino’s November 2014 meeting with Sanofi Pasteur representatives in Beijing.
De Lima also said that the Committee Report used double standards in recommending charges against Garin but not finding any liability on the part of former Health Secretary Paulyn Ubial, despite the fact that the latter expanded the coverage of the dengue vaccination program to Region VII. She said that both Garin and Ubial relied on the same opinions of World Health Organization (WHO) experts on the efficacy and safety of Dengvaxia. According to her, the two Health secretaries relied on said experts’ opinion to roll-out the vaccine, on the part of Garin, and to expand its coverage to Region VII, on the part of Ubial.
De Lima concluded that even after Sanofi Pasteur’s November 29, 2017 disclosure on the increased risk to those not previously infected with the dengue virus, the WHO maintained its position that the dengue vaccine remained effective in protecting those previously infected against severe dengue, thus greatly reducing hospitalization cases. She said the benefits of dengue vaccination in the four regions far outweighed the risks, considering the high prevalence of dengue infection in said regions.
De Lima said one of the criticisms of Sen. Gordon against Aquino was the haste in the approval of the huge funding for the dengue vaccine, amounting to 3.5 billion pesos. De Lima pointed out that during the hearings, the DBM said that year-end billion-peso augmentations taken from savings is no longer out of the ordinary after the Supreme Court decision on the DAP controversy. The DBM said that after the Court ruled in the case of Araullo v. Aquino that savings can only be determined and used at the end of the year, the facilitation of billion-peso SAROs at the end of the year has become common. During the hearings, the DBM pointed out to a recent 2 billion-peso year-end release also to DOH under the Duterte Administration.
De Lima observed that because of the alarming increase of dengue cases in the past several years, the dengue vaccination program became a priority of the Aquino Administration once the vaccine became available. It was only therefore natural for the government to facilitate and ensure the release of funds for its implementation. De Lima said that despite this prioritization, laws did not have to be broken or shortcuts did not have to be taken by the Aquino Administration. None of that was proven. She said that this was attested to in the report of the Integrity Management Committee of the DOH under Sec. Ubial.
“It was never proven throughout the investigation that anybody got a bribe, commission one way or another profited from the whole affair. Not a single witness was presented to prove that a single official, from former President Benigno S. Aquino III and former DOH Secretary Janette Garin, to the lowliest FDA official enriched himself or herself from the whole transaction,” De Lima said.
Aside from filing her own dissenting report, De Lima also concurred in the dissent of Sen. Franklin Drilon which was filed earlier.