Former Philippine president defends Dengvaxia program, but the questions aren't going away

Sanofi and former government officials in the Philippines are under mounting pressure from lawmakers there over the rollout of Dengvaxia.

As lawmakers in the Philippines question officials involved in the world’s first mass dengue vaccination program, ex-president Benigno Aquino III defended his administration’s decision to launch it. That's not likely to fend off further scrutiny of the now-controversial campaign, however, as criminal charges and probes could be on their way.

During a congressional hearing Dec. 14, Aquino told lawmakers that he saw the program as an opportunity to help prevent a disease that’s widely prevalent in the country and that he didn’t receive any objections to using Sanofi's Dengvaxia shot, according to a Reuters report. There were, however, known concerns from an advisory expert panel at the Department of Health over the vaccine’s long-term data.

Meanwhile, lawmakers continue to press for investigations and consequences. Sen. Richard Gordon, chairman of an investigatory panel, said approval and procurement went down with “unbelievable haste and phenomenal speed.” Rep. Johnny Pimentel, chairman of the Philippines House Committee on Good Government and Public Accountability, said officials may face graft charges as the purchase of Dengvaxia at least now looks “highly detrimental to the government,” according to local newspaper Manila Bulletin.

RELATED: Sanofi looks for path forward with Dengvaxia as challenges mount

It was during Aquino’s tenure and under former Department of Health chief Janette Garin that the Philippines implemented its mass vaccination program at a cost of $70 million. Based on Sanofi’s recent analysis that the vaccine could cause more serious infections in dengue-naïve recipients, officials halted the program on Dec. 1 under the current Rodrigo Duterte administration. The vaccine so far has been given to about 800,000 children 9 years and older in the country.

At the same time, the Senate Committee on Health and Demography is planning a separate hearing focused on the medical aspects of the vaccine.

Senator Joseph Victor “JV” Ejercito, during a Sunday interview with DZBB radio, said Gordon's probe isn’t addressing the urgent need for more health information, according to Manila Bulletin. The committee is waiting for findings from the World Health Organization and other health experts to help understand the health consequences, and that isn't good enough, he said.

“I would advise that [current DOH secretary Francisco Duque III] release a periodic update on Dengvaxia, so that parents, like me, would have an idea how to deal with the issue. The updates are important to give us peace of mind and not cause further panic,” he said, as quoted by the newspaper.

RELATED: Philippines plans legal action against Sanofi over Dengvaxia safety scare: official

The vaccine maker may not be let off the hook financially, either. Pimentel has joined the DOH in urging Sanofi to refund the cost of Dengvaxia, although Sanofi officials said last week the company hasn’t received formal request from the government. According to local TV network DZRH News, when asked by Sen. Risa Hontiveros about Sanofi's intention to cover the cost of serious dengue cases potentially linked to Dengvaxia, Sanofi's Asia Pacific head, Thomas Triomphe, said it's still too early to talk about compensation. 

After Sanofi's safety announcement, the WHO recommended the shot be given only to people who are known to have had a prior infection. But there’s no widely available test for dengue, and up to 75% of first infections can go unnoticed, Sanofi’s global medical head for vaccines, Su-Peing Ng, recently said.

Since the scandal erupted weeks ago, Sanofi has continuously worked to convince the public that its vaccine is safe, stressing that no deaths have been linked to Dengvaxia. During its clinical trial, however, there was an unusual hospitalization rate among younger children. In hindsight, that might have been an initial indication of the vaccine’s potential harm for those never infected with the mosquito-borne virus, according to Reuters. Sanofi at that time used the data to limit Dengvaxia's target to people at least 9 years old.