MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Former president Benigno Aquino III defended his administration’s decision to rush the procurement of the P3.5-billion worth of dengue vaccine in 2015.
“From our perspective, the choice was simple: we can implement at this point in time to afford the protection or wait at least a year minimum and expose our people to a risk that could be prevented because of this. I just want to state for the record, what we had then, none of this warning on November 2017,” said Aquino on Thursday, December 14.
He was referring to Sanofi Pasteur’s announcement that its vaccine could lead to “more severe” cases of dengue when administered to a person who had not been infected by the virus prior to immunization.
Aquino testified before the Senate blue ribbon committee and took the chance to directly address committee chair Richard Gordon’s seemingly indirect questions on alleged corruption.
Gordon questioned Aquino’s December 1, 2015 meeting with Sanofi Pasteur officials in Paris and the apparent immediate approval of the vaccine and the funds for it.
The senator said 21 days after Aquino received Sanofi in Paris, the Philippines’ FDA issued its certification for Dengvaxia on December 22.
A week after, on December 29, the Department of Budget and Management already released the Special Allotment Release Order to the Department of Health for the procurement of the vaccines.
“Ang bilis na-approve ng FDA, nakakuha agad ng SARO. I'm sorry Mr President natatapat lang December 1 nag-meeting kayo sa Paris tapos dumating agad, nakatanggap SARO and na-release pera,” Gordon said on Thursday, December 14, during the Senate hearing.
(The approval from the FDA came quickly, the SARO was immediately released. I'm sorry Mr President, maybe it's just coincidence but December 1 you met in Paris and the approval, SARO, and release of money immediately came after.)
Former budget secretary Florencio Abad initially spoke but Aquino took the chance to address Gordon’s seeming insinuation of corruption: “If I may answer the question and unasked question.”
Gordon answered: “Wala pa naman akong (I still don't have an) unasked question.”
Aquino went on to explain that the procurement underwent legal process.
Right after his trip to Europe in December 2015, Aquino said he was told that Dengvaxia was already available.
Since at the time, the proposed 2016 national budget was already approved, he said they decided to utilize savings, as allowed by the special provisions in the 2014 and 2015 allocations. (READ: TIMELINE: Dengue immunization program for public school students)
The former president explained the dengue vaccine was not included in the 2016 budget proposal because it was not yet legally existing at the time of deliberations.
“The bottomline is, when I got back home, I was told this was available already, and it has to undergo processes before we can purchase, that’s the reason it’s not in the  budget. Until they got FDA, formulatory [approval], we couldn’t buy it,” Aquino said.
“With expectation that it will be getting all of this, the next question is: how can we fund it? We couldn’t fund it during budget deliberations because it wasn’t legally existing. What was identified in the special provisions in the 2014 and 2015 budget that allows us to utilize this particular item, savings, we were projecting that once we get all of those steps done, then we can buy it,” he added.
Gordon then interjected and clarified that he is not insinuating anything.
“Wala naman po akong ina-unasked (I don't have any 'unasked' question),” he said.
Aquino continued his explanation to “complete the picture” and said if they did not use the savings by December 31, 2015, the funds would revert to the national treasury.
“If by December 31, you do not utilize these unutilized funds, it reverts back to national treasury. Then how do you fund? Ask supplemental budget which requires new sources of revenue. So we’re talking, this is December, we'll go to Congress and hopefully, with the election ban and everything, Congress will approve it and we can find new source in the first quarter of the year , which I'm sure you know is very, very difficult,” the former chief executive said.
“The end result is if you do not do this in this point of time, you are practically saying that the first implementation of this vaccine will be in 2017 because it will be for the next budget cycle, which will be under the new administration. And of course, assuming that there is a learning curve at the begin of new administration, there's no guarantee it will happen in 2017,” he said.
Gordon again clarified that he is not out to imply anything against him.
“Let me assure you I am not hinting anything in so far as your integrity. I'm just stating facts here. Malinaw po sa aking kalooban yan. Wag ho kayo mag-alala,” the senator said.
In an earlier hearing, however, he questioned the speed of procurement and hinted that a “conspiracy” might have been behind it.
Health experts claimed the root of the problem is "bad science" or "wrong infomation" given to the president.
It was under his administration when then-DOH chief Janette Garin launched the program in 3 regions in April 2016, despite public health experts warning that the implementation was “too” rushed. (READ: Mass use of dengue vaccine had no backing of DOH medical experts) – Rappler.com
Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation, and democracy. She won an ILO award in 2017. She received the prestigious Fulbright-Hubert Humphrey fellowship in 2019, allowing her to further study media and politics in the US. Email firstname.lastname@example.org