If Health Secretary-designate Francisco Duque thinks that he can get confirmed if he just keeps his head down and stays silent regarding the long-running Dengvaxia controversy, he is very much mistaken. Yesterday, the powerful Commission on Appointments made it clear that the anti-dengue vaccine will figure very prominently in Duque’s confirmation process and that the secretary can avoid the issue only at his own peril.
The chairman of the CA’s committee on health, Senator Gregorio Honasan, said the panel decided to defer action on Duque’s nomination to give itself time to consider the health secretary’s responses to questions about the Dengvaxia scandal. “I’m not prepared to say that everything is OK, that the commission is satisfied [with Duque’s answers to inquiries about Dengvaxia],” Honasan said.
Of great importance to the commission, Honasan said, was how Duque intends to respond to the crisis that started when Dengvaxia maker Sanofi Pasteur declared late in November that its patented drug may actually cause severe dengue in persons who have not been infected with the disease before. The Aquino administration, of course, is also being accused of prematurely allowing the vaccination of 830,000 young people through the school system, after purchasing P3.5 billion worth of Dengvaxia at the end of 2015.
Duque, who was appointed only last October after his predecessor’s appointment was rejected by the same CA, has been charged with not being responsive and proactive enough to address the Dengvaxia situation. In particular, Duque has not acted to investigate Department of Health officials involved in the controversial purchase, many of whom were also his subordinates and co-workers when he was health secretary in the Arroyo years.
Indeed, instead of preventively suspending DoH officials linked to the Dengvaxia program and collecting the evidence of their involvement —standard procedure in any serious internal investigation—Duque has obsessed over the refund offered by Sanofi to the Philippine government. Duque, as far as anyone knows, has not even come up with an authoritative registry of children given the vaccine, something that will help government quickly respond to those who may suffer ill effects as a result of vaccination.
Another knock on Duque’s response to the Dengvaxia problem is his failure to coordinate with government agencies outside of DoH which have also been ordered to investigate. For instance, instead of working closely with the Public Attorney’s Office, which has been directed to perform autopsies on the bodies of children believed to have died after being given the vaccine, Duque can only say that he has written PAO chief Persida Acosta to “share data” with DoH but has not gotten any response.
Of course, it is unfair to accuse Duque of being part of an enormous coverup operation that seeks to absolve not only Sanofi but also past and present health officials without any real evidence. But I think it’s safe to say that Duque has been dragging his feet on the Dengvaxia crisis and has not shown any interest in taking the lead in addressing the situation proactively, in order to prevent more vaccinated children from joining the list of the 20 or so who have reportedly died after being given the drug.
And then, there are the persistent reports that Duque is afraid to rock to boat on the scandal because some high-ranking members of Congress are also involved in the alleged coverup. These lawmakers, who supposedly have the power influence the CA’s confirmation process, could reject Duque like they did his predecessor, Paulyn Ubial.
But I’m glad that Honasan and the other CA members are signaling that they will not have anything to do with the reported plot to bury the Dengvaxia scandal by deferring the secretary’s confirmation yesterday. Of course, if the lawmakers on the commission suddenly change their tune and confirm Duque without further ado, the public will conclude (and who can blame them?) that the fix is in.
I’m just glad that the CA is finally recognizing the Dengvaxia scandal for what it is—a terrible endangerment of hundreds of thousands of young Filipinos by their own government using public funds. And that they are now asking Duque the hard questions that they need to ask before confirming him.
The Dengvaxia controversy, unfortunately for Duque, his subordinate officials and his predecessors, will not go away. For the sake of all those who were given the vaccine, I am really praying that it doesn’t—and that all who perpetrated this crime are made to pay.
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It’s true, as Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales said yesterday, that a 2014 Supreme Court ruling stands in the way of Malacañang’s order to suspend her deputy, the controversial Melchor Arthur Carandang. But it’s wrong for Morales to say that the suspension order is unconstitutional, because the 1987 charter only states that “protected” officials like Morales herself can only be removed by impeachment.
The constitution does not say that the deputies of impeachable officials like the Ombudsman need Congress’ intervention to be suspended or fired. I guess this is something that will only be resolved after Morales retires in July—taking with her all of her power to defend the person who appointed her and Carandang, as well.