A Sanofi executive defended the company's dengue vaccine before lawmakers in the Philippines on Monday, urging the country to look past a mounting safety scandal and continue fighting the endemic disease.
Meanwhile, new media reports raised questions about the genesis of the country's immunization campaign, suggesting that the Department of Health's effort went forward in the face of contrary advice from its own experts.
During a public Senate hearing, Sanofi’s Asia Pacific head Thomas Triomphe said the company assures “each and every one of you that Dengvaxia is, and continues to be, a safe and efficacious vaccine.” According to footage from ABS-CBN News, Triomphe told officials their recent decision to stop a national Dengvaxia immunization campaign will be a “regression” in the country’s approach to fighting dengue and a “disservice” to the public.
“We hope that knowing that other nations all over the world are not taking Dengvaxia off the shelf would prove that Sanofi Pasteur is telling you the truth that the vaccine is safe,” Triomphe said at the hearing. The shot has been used in 11 countries, he noted.
The Philippines stopped vaccinations shortly after the company warned that Dengvaxia can cause more serious infections in those who previously hadn’t had exposure to the virus. The country also kicked off a probe and plans legal action, according to health secretary Francisco Duque.
The senator leading the investigation, Richard Gordon, called out government officials for “reckless disregard of processes,” according to Reuters, adding that the program went forward with “undue haste.”
Indeed, health officials moved forward with the campaign despite expert advice in favor of a more measured approach, Reuters reports. Correspondence and meeting minutes before the campaign began show that the Department of Health didn’t heed warnings from an advisory group of doctors and pharmacologists, who concluded early last year that the vaccine’s safety and efficacy were unproven.
The group ultimately approved the vaccine's purchase, but recommended that it be rolled out through small pilot programs and only after studies into local dengue prevalence, the news service reports. Instead, the government introduced the vaccine to hundreds of thousands of children in three dengue endemic regions. Former health secretary Janette Garin denied any wrongdoing at the Monday senate hearing, according to Reuters.
Other government officials aren’t letting up with their criticism of the company and the vaccination program. Duque said on Monday that the company has been “dishonest about the risks of Dengvaxia,” according to The Philippine Star.
Sanofi has been embroiled in the scandal in the Philippines for more than a week after it reported that the vaccine can cause more serious infections if given to those who haven’t had a previous infection. The Philippines quickly canceled future vaccinations and took a tough tone with the company.
The French pharma giant spent 20 years and $1.5 billion developing its vaccine, but so far it hasn’t been a commercial success despite carrying some big early expectations. Dengvaxia is approved in 19 countries, Triomphe said at Monday’s hearing. He added that Sanofi is “ready and willing” to cooperate with the probe.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story stated that the Philippines was the only country conducting a large immunization campaign with Dengvaxia. Brazil's Paraná state is still using the vaccine.