Was Aquino’s P3.5B purchase of the dengue vaccine the worst case of corruption ever?

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RIGOBERTO D. TIGLAO

WAS there corruption on a massive scale, with former President Aquino 3rd earning hundreds of millions of pesos in dirty money from his administration’s purchase of Sanofi’s dengue vaccine Dengvaxia?

If indeed it was a case of corruption, it would be among the biggest ever for a single corrupt deal, as just 10 percent of the P3-billion cost of the one million dosages of the vaccine purchased—without any bidding and through secret negotiations—is P350 million. It could have been likely more, considering that Sanofi’s $70 million sale to the Aquino administration gave it the much needed financial and advertising boost for a vaccine it had developed at a cost of $1.8 billion, yet which it could sell only $20 million worth in two years of aggressive marketing.

But more than the magnitude of dirty money involved, this case of graft, if proven as such, would be the most abominable: The health and lives of 730,000 Filipino children were put at risk, just to rush the vaccine’s purchase before a new government would come to power.

Aquino with his health secretary Garin: Will she throw him under the bus to save her own skin?

President Duterte must leave no stone unturned to determine the answer to this question, if he is to be true to his promise to rid the country of corruption, and to get justice for 730,000 children.


He will be met by stiff resistance by the Yellow Cult, Already the most expensive campaign ever has been contracted and launched to use media for a massive cover-up of this ignominy. Just check the articles and opinion columns of the newspaper still in the Yellow Cult’s control.

I don’t think arriving at the truth will be so difficult: Aquino’s health secretary Janette Garin, who is from one of the most powerful political clans in Iloilo, would likely throw her former boss under the bus to save her own skin.

You, dear Reader, decide for yourself if Aquino got graft money or not from his dengue vaccination program. I will just narrate the facts.

Intense interest

First, it was Aquino himself who demonstrated intense interest in the Dengvaxia mass vaccination program, when he had hardly any interest in health issues in the past. He gave direct orders to Garin to undertake the program and buy the vaccines from Sanofi, despite appeals by the medical community to wait for the World Health Organization’s recommendation.

Aquino also had to order Budget Secretary Florencio Abad to find ways to fund the P3.5-billion cost of the vaccines, as this wasn’t covered in the 2015 or 2016 budgets set by Congress. I wrote this in my column last Wednesday, and neither Aquino nor Garin have denied this claim.

Second, Aquino was in an inexplicable extraordinary rush to purchase Sanofi’s Dengvaxia, quite obviously so the vaccination program could be undertaken before he stepped down from office on June 30.

Those familiar with the anatomy of corruption in any country would recognize such rush as a red flag pointing to graft. The rush is so totally inexplicable unless it was a graft project.

December 2, 2015: Aquino met with Sanofi officials in Paris—the second time he did so—and as the meeting adjourned, ordered Garin to rush the order to purchase the vaccines.

December 22: The Food and Drug Administration, headed by Garin approved the use of Sanofi’s Dengvaxia. It normally takes two years for the FDA to give its approval for new drugs, longer for risky vaccines since these are essentially weakened forms of the virus introduced to the body in the hope it will develop its own immunity.

December 29:The budget department’s authorization (SARO) for the purchase of the P3.5 billion vaccines was issued.

January 2016: Garin—who had replaced Enrique Ona as health secretary in January 2015—announces that the mass vaccination program would be undertaken starting in February.

March: The education department and the interior and local government department issued their memoranda on their personnel’s participation in the program.

April: The mass injection of 733,000 fourth-grade students with the Dengvaxia starts.

Never ever has such a major government program been undertaken in the span of just a few months.

So despicable

Aquino’s sprint for his administration to buy the Dengvaxia vaccine is so despicable considering that the UN’s World Health Organization in July 2015 had withheld recommendation on its use. It told the world that its Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE) on immunization was still evaluating the evidence and would only “likely” submit its findings on the use of the vaccine to the body in April 2016.

But for Aquino that obviously would be too late to purchase the vaccine, and the WHO had not really committed to the April date. Indeed, it was only in July 2016, that the WHO issued its recommendations based on the studies of the SAGE.

The WHO said Dengvaxia must be used only in areas where at least 50 percent of the population were infected with the dengue virus. It emphasized that it should not be injected into those who have not had the disease. If this was done, dengue would be more severe than it normally is, even leading to death, when the vaccinated person gets the disease.

Because of the dangers of Dengvaxia, only the Philippines in the entire world has undertaken a government-sponsored mass vaccination program using the drug.

There was no plague-like outbreak of dengue at the time (or ever), with the disease ranked as the ninth most prevalent disease in the country. The only urgency was perhaps the facct program would be undertaken in the campaign period towards the national elections in May, when everyone, especially media, would be distracted by the heat of the political contest.

But still, why couldn’t Aquino just wait for the WHO recommendations? For hundreds of millions of reasons?

Laws violated

Third, Aquino violated government laws and regulations when the health department purchased the P3.5 billion Sanofi vaccine, thereby risking being charged and imprisoned.

There wasn’t any public call to suppliers to submit their bids for the vaccine. It was a non-Sanofi firm Zuellig that was licensed to sell Dengvaxia in the country, although it isn’t clear if the French firm coursed the vaccine it sold to the government through this company.

The purchase of the vaccine wasn’t in the health department’s budget for 2015 nor in 2016, and was therefore unauthorized by Congress, the body which determines how taxpayers’ money may be used.

The funds were hijacked from the 2016 budget for “miscellaneous personnel benefit funds,” created for the compensation of newly hired government employees. But this is illegal, as the Supreme Court categorically ruled such fund-juggling unconstitutional in the case involving the Disbursement Acceleration Plan controversy.

Do you think Aquino would risk going to prison in order to protect Filipino children from dengue, using a vaccine which the WHO had not approved?

Shrouded in secrecy

Fourth, the P3.5 billion purchase was shrouded in secrecy, with the talks between government and Sanofi on the price for the vaccine never made public. This is another red flag for a purchase involving pay-offs to government officials.

The only report I have been able to find on this was a January 4, 2016  article in GMA News online that quoted Garin as saying that Aquino got a 34 percent discount when he met with an unidentified Sanofi executive in Paris.
Really? Or was Garin confused, that the 34 percent figure was actually the commission?

Sanofi reports in its website that it does not make public the Dengvaxia’s price, claiming that this is subject to negotiations with buyers. That of course gives so much flexibility for under-the-table pay-offs.

There are indications that the  Dengvaxia vaccine bought was probably overpriced.  The purchase order  for Dengvaxia was for 1,000,000 dosages at a cost of  P3 billion, which means P3,000 per dosage. The Brazilian government reported  that it bought its Dengvaxia at $37 per dosage, or P1,871.  An Indian company though has put out an advertisement that prices its Dengvaxia at the equivalent of P9 per dose.

Corruption

Fifth, Sanofi hasn’t been above corruption. A German court in 2013 convicted two former Sanofi staff of bribery and slapped the French drug-maker with a $39 million fine for making pay-offs to get more buyers for its drugs. The company’s officials were also alleged to have given pay-offs to doctors in China, Kenya and East African countries between 2007 to 2012.

Indeed, “big pharma” has had a reputation for corrupting local governments for its requirements that the renowned spy-thriller novelist John le Carré wrote a novel (The Constant Gardener, which was made into a 2005 movie) in which a drug company bribed Kenyan officials to test secretly its tuberculosis drug, called “Dypraxa,” on a village that got many of its residents killed. The Aquino health department agreed in 2011 to have 3,500 children become guinea pigs for Dengvaxia.

Was Aquino so desperate to make big money in the “last two minutes” of his regime that he risked the health and lives of 730,000 Filipino children? The only other explanation is that he was just utterly stupid, and that he was played by Sanofi.

Email: tiglao.manilatimes@gmail.com
Facebook: Rigoberto Tiglao
Twitter: @bobitiglao

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