MANILA, Philippines — Former President Benigno Aquino III admitted that he got very enthusiastic and eager about Dengvaxia when he learned two years ago from Sanofi Pasteur that the French pharmaceutical giant had supposedly perfected the world’s only vaccine against all dengue strains.
Aquino, who was among the resource persons during the continuation of the Senate inquiry into the Dengvaxia controversy on Thursday, said his excitement over the vaccine grew with the thought that the Philippines would finally have a cure against the dreaded and potentially fatal mosquito-borne disease.
“And now (in 2015) they’re saying that this potential in the horizon is an actuality. Yes, I believe I would have said something like that, I was excited,” the former President said, telling members of the Senate blue ribbon and health committees what he remembered when he met with Sanofi executives in a hotel in Paris on Dec. 1, 2015 and discussed with them about Dengvaxia.
However, when asked by Sen. Richard Gordon, chair of the Blue Ribbon panel, if he was aware of the multinational drug maker’s record, Aquino said he had heard about the company but was no more knowledgeable about it than ordinary citizens.
“I am no expert on what they are able to do,” he said.
Then Gordon went on to enumerate the cases and fines against the French firm through the years, including a report that from 2007 to 2012, its personnel supposedly bribed doctors in Eastern Africa and the Middle East to persuade them to use Sanofi drugs.
The senator also mentioned that in 2007, Sanofi was accused of bribery in China, and France’s competition commission had also fined the company $52.8 million for discouraging doctors from using generic blood thinner.
Aquino said he had not been aware of those reports.
Gordon replied that it was probably though no fault of Aquino that he wasn’t briefed about this, but, the senator nevertheless said that, “There ought to be a certain amount of due diligence.”
Also, the senator brought up during the hearing the possibility that Aquino’s enthusiasm over Dengvaxia might have encouraged his Cabinet members, including former Department of Health (DOH) chief Janette Garin, who were with him during his meeting with Sanofi officials in Paris, to speed up the process of acquiring the vaccine.
Gordon previously said that the government’s immunization program using Dengvaxia had been rolled out hastily during the Aquino administration.
But Aquino, during the hearing, stressed that his excitement over Dengvaxia did not cloud his thinking as he had instructed Garin and other concerned public officials to make sure that the vaccine was indeed available, had gone through all the processes, and there was available funds for the government to purchase the product so that Filipinos could be immunized and protected from dengue as soon as possible.
It was likewise revealed at the Senate inquiry that during the December 2015 meeting of Aquino with the executives of the drug firm, Sanofi’s data showed that although the vaccine worked better with populations that already contracted dengue, Dengvaxia also benefitted those who had not yet been infected with the virus.
Reading the minutes of the meeting between Aquino and Sanofi executives, Gordon said that drug firm had told the former President that the vaccine reduces by 80 percent the risk of hospitalization and by 93 percent the risk of severe dengue.
Sanofi had also supposedly told Aquino that the vaccine worked against the four types of dengue, and that it worked better with populations that had already contracted dengue.
Sanofi Asia-Pacific head Thomas Triomphe said that the 2015 minutes of the meeting was correct because at that time, the firm did not have the information that they have now that those who have not had dengue yet before being vaccinated may have more severe dengue following a subsequent infection.
The Sanofi official said that back in December 2015, what the company only knew was that Dengvaxia was effective and safe even for those who did not yet get sick with dengue.
Also, during the hearing, Gordon asked Aquino who arranged the earlier meeting between him and Sanofi executives in China in November 2014.
The former President said Sanofi had requested for a courtesy call through the DOH.
Garin said her predecessor, former DOH chief Enrique Ona, had already been having meetings with Sanofi even while she was still department undersecretary. She added that as early as June or July 2014, Ona had already held a press conference on the dengue vaccine, and expressed the government’s intention to roll out the immunization program by July 2015.