MANILA, Philippines – Ex-Department of Health (DOH) chief Paulyn Ubial said new vaccines should not be introduced to the market during an election year, taking a swipe at the controversial Dengvaxia vaccine.
"We do not introduce new vaccines during an election year. Because no matter how good that vaccine is, the introduction during an election year would taint it. That's why we can't mix health and politics," said Ubial on Monday, December 11.
The former DOH chief was testifying at the Senate probe into the now-suspended school-based dengue immunization program that was launched by her predecessor Janette Garin on April 4, 2016, a month before the national elections.
Ubial said she was already against the use of the world's first dengue vaccine for mass use in the country when she was still assistant secretary. (READ: TIMELINE: Dengue immunization program for public school students)
But Ubial said she was forced to continue it when she took over the DOH under President Rodrigo Duterte because lawmakers warned she could go to jail for breach of contract.
Instead, Ubial said she intentionally delayed the implementation of the program in a bid to save more Filipinos from possible risks of the vaccine.
Recently, Dengvaxia maker Sanofi Pasteur said new analysis of clinical data showed its vaccine could cause a severe case of dengue when administered to a person who had not been previously infected by the virus. Around 830,000 Filipino grade-schoolers already received the vaccine.
"I dilly-dallied. That was intentional because of the issues that were raised by Dr [Antonio] Dans and his team and Dr [Anthony] Leachon," said Ubial, referring to two members of an expert panel she formed to assess the dengue vaccine during her term.
"There were issues on long-term safety, and so I had to really be very, very careful, go the extraordinary mile, [take] extraordinary diligence for this program. And I'm glad I did it," she added.
On July 18, 2016, Ubial signed a resolution recommending the deferment of the program, saying the vaccine is not proven safe.
She was criticized, however, for attempting to suspend the program. And so two months later, Ubial issued a Certificate of Exemption for Dengvaxia so it could still be used despite her earlier flagging of certain issues.
On Monday, Ubial also said pilot studies for new vaccines usually involve small groups of about 20,000 to 40,000 test subjects.
"This vaccine had clinical trials covering 40,000 people only. Why would you give it suddenly to one million children in one given year?" she asked.
Bad timing and politics
Senate blue ribbon committee chairman Richard Gordon also questioned the places where the vaccination program was launched. (READ: Gordon says Dengvaxia approval 'too fast,' hints possible ‘conspiracy')
"The 3 regions upon which [the dengue vaccine was launched] appear to be the places with highest voters – NCR (National Capital Region), Region III, Region IV," he said during the hearing.
In an interview with reporters after the probe, Gordon also said the vaccination program had "very bad timing."
"P3 and a half billion when you're leaving [and] the administration is about to transfer powers of government, very bad timing. You have to suspect that there was money involved. Baka pabaon (Maybe monetary reward), all the way up to the president. Or namumulitika sila (Or maybe they were using it for politics)," Gordon said.
In an earlier probe of the Senate panel, Garin denied the dengue vaccination program had anything to do with the 2016 elections. She maintained on Monday that the program was "not a midnight deal." – Rappler.com