MANILA – A Philippine NGO demanded plunder charges on Thursday against former president Benigno Aquino III for his government’s purchase of a dengue fever vaccine, which has sparked a scandal being investigated for a second day in government hearings.
Ferdinand Topacio, a member of the Volunteers against Crime and Corruption group, said during a Senate probe into the vaccine affair that the ex-president – who was present in the hearing – and other Cabinet members collected millions of pesos worth of tainted wealth in buying the Dengvaxia drug from Sanofi Pasteur, the Philippine News Agency reported.
The scandal centers on the company Sanofi Pasteur’s claim in November that people who had received its Dengvaxia drug – the world’s first licensed dengue fever vaccine – should be closely observed because severe symptoms could result in those who had not previously been infected.
The Philippines’ Department of Health then suspended a large-scale dengue immunization campaign early in December, which had been administered to more than 800,000 children in dengue-risk areas.
Senior members of the Philippine government, Aquino, Sanofi Pasteur’s Asia-Pacific chief Thomas Triomphe and WHO representative for the Philippines Gunder Weiler were among several people who attended Thursday’s hearing.
The claim against Aquino follows a statement Tuesday from presidential spokesperson Harry Roque, in which he said that President Rodrigo Duterte seeks to pursue all those responsible for the vaccine crisis.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III had previously said the country will demand a refund of the 3.5 billion pesos ($69.4 million) paid to Sanofi Pasteur for Dengvaxia, as well as seek an indemnification fund from the French firm to cover the hospitalization and treatment costs of children who could suffer from severe dengue.
While offering an apology for the “confusion” over Dengvaxia during a House hearing on Wednesday, Triomphe also stated the vaccine is safe, despite his company’s announcement in November, according to the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
Dengue fever is a mosquito-borne infection prevalent in tropical and subtropical regions, the symptoms of which resemble severe flu and include headaches and muscle and joint pain, according to a WHO fact sheet.
Severe dengue can lead to death if patients go untreated, and until Dengvaxia was released no specific treatment against the illness was known.
The fever is most common in Southeast Asian countries and on western Pacific Islands.