When the current Congress opened in the middle of last year, a two-term lawmaker from Quezon province, Rep. Angelina Tan, who was also chairman of the House committee on health, started an investigation into the P3.5-billion “midnight” anti-dengue immunization program of the Aquino administration using the Dengvaxia vaccine. By February of this year, the committee of Tan, a rural doctor by profession, had completed a draft report on its probe, which contained damning findings and recommended the suspension of the program.
According to the Tan committee, the Department of Health found that 997 children vaccinated with Dengvaxia, a product of French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi Pasteur, suffered “adverse effects” after being inoculated with the first of the three-dose vaccine. Fully 30 of these cases required hospitalization, the committee report said, and two of the 30 children died.
A report by Jess Diaz in yesterday’s Philippine Star said the DoH was unable to explain what happened to the children who fell ill upon being vaccinated, because of a “lack of proper monitoring and reporting protocols before undertaking the program.” Tan told Diaz that the department never gave the committee an update on the fate of the children up until the report was drafted last February.
The committee found that four children died after being given Dengvaxia, two in Bulacan and two in Bataan, with only the two Bataan children identified. Medical experts consulted by the Tan committee said that the deaths were apparently “vaccination-induced.”
The committee, according to Diaz’ report, “recommended the temporary suspension of the dengue vaccination program and the conduct of serological tests prior to immunization, for studies have shown that the vaccine provides better protection for those who were already exposed and are positive for dengue antibodies.” The potential dangers of the vaccine on recipients who tested “seronegative” (or who have not been infected with the virus) was cited by Sanofi last week, an admission which sparked the scandal now known as “DengGate.”
But the Tan committee’s report was never submitted to the House plenary. As the investigation was about to conclude, the powerful House committee on rules decided that the committee on good government and public accountability headed by Surigao del Sur Rep. Johnny Pimentel should join in the probe before the Tan panel’s findings could be officially reported out.
The official reason given was that since government officers were apparently involved in the anomalous purchase of Dengvaxia and the massive vaccination program to administer the vaccine to 730,000 children, Pimentel’s committee should be involved.
But what the House leadership of Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez actually did was to stymie the Tan committee and bury its draft report. The two committees were unable to form a consensus, thereby effectively “killing” the Tan panel’s explosive findings.
Pimentel, by the way, is known in the House as a top henchman of Alvarez. The Surigao congressman is best remembered for leading the investigation of the so-called “Ilocos Six,” the officials of the Ilocos Norte provincial government who were detained for months at the House on the alleged orders of Alvarez and Majority Leader Rep. Rodolfo Fariñas of Ilocos Norte, who apparently were behind a campaign to discredit Farinas’ political rival, Gov. Imee Marcos.
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Instead of suspending the implementation of the Dengvaxia program, the House even convinced Health Secretary-designate Paulyn Ubial to expand it to the Central Visayas region. Under the Aquino administration, the program had only targeted children in public schools in three regions—Metro Manila, Central Luzon and Southern Tagalog—for inclusion in the program.
During the confirmation and budget hearings attended by Ubial, she was repeatedly pressured to widen the scope of the vaccination program, which the health secretary initially resisted on medical grounds. At the same time, a vocal anti-Ubial faction rose in the House, led by Kabayan party-list Rep. Harry Roque (who is now spokesman of President Rodrigo Duterte), among others, which Ubial decided would only stop opposing her appointment if she agreed to continue and expand the Dengvaxia immunization campaign; ironically, Ubial’s appointment was rejected by the Commission on Appointments despite her expansion of the vaccination scheme.
It is worth noting that a similar investigation started by Senator Richard Gordon on the Dengvaxia immunization program in the Senate in December last year also went nowhere. Gordon, in an interview this week, allegedly cited a lack of public interest in the case and the refusal of DoH officials led by Ubial to cooperate in the Senate probe.
What does this all mean? It means that government officials and politicians of various stripes in two different administrations were apparently involved in a campaign to continue the Dengvaxia program and to protect it from critics – even from within both Houses of Congress itself.
And if Sanofi had not made its self-incriminating admission last week, we probably would never have known about the whole thing, as well. That’s how powerful and all-pervasive the conspiracy was.