The normally vociferous and theatrical Persida Acosta, chief of the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO), has been unusually silent these days in the face of recent events that directly point to her culpability in the delayed delivery of COVID-19 vaccines.
Previously promised in December last year by President Duterte himself, the vaccines have been held back by its manufacturers pending an indemnification agreement that, according to senior administration officials, was an “unexpected” requirement. The indemnity fund—a P500-million resource signed this week by Congress on the urging of the President—is meant to protect vaccine makers from liabilities and other damages in case of adverse effects from the shots.
The indemnification clause, which vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr. said was not part of initial sales negotiations, reflects fears among Western vaccine makers that they could suffer the same fate as the French drug company Sanofi Pasteur. Three top Sanofi executives—all based in Paris—were ordered arrested by a Quezon City court earlier this month after they failed to appear for an arraignment hearing on charges of reckless imprudence resulting in homicide, over the pharma company’s roll-out several years ago of its anti-dengue drug Dengvaxia.
According to the World Health Organization, Dengvaxia, the first dengue vaccine licensed in 2015, has been approved for use in 20 countries, including the United States and parts of the European Union. No vaccine-related deaths have been reported in other countries.
In a recent briefing, Galvez acknowledged that the indemnification clause must have stemmed from the vaccine companies’ worry about a repeat of the Dengvaxia controversy that started in 2017, when Sanofi announced that its vaccine could cause severe dengue symptoms among those not previously exposed to the mosquito-borne disease. With Dengvaxia’s first dose already administered to over 800,000 children the previous year, the information threw parents into fear and panic, and that’s where the PAO, headed by Acosta, a nondoctor or health expert, stepped in. The agency conducted a strident, high-profile media crusade on alleged Dengvaxia-related deaths among children, forming its own investigation team, brandishing autopsy findings that medical groups and even the Department of Health (DOH) said were inconclusive, conducting morgue tours, and parading the sobbing parents of 39 alleged victims.
Despite scant evidence linking the vaccine to the deaths, Acosta filed charges against the drug company and former officials of the Aquino administration for their alleged role in the vaccination program.
“(The arrest warrants against Sanofi officials) changed everything, iyong lahat ng agreement namin. It changed everything,” Galvez said of the vaccine deals.
Acosta’s shrill antics did more than discredit Dengvaxia in the Philippines. Her “baseless claims and accusations,” according to Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, also resulted in “a decline in vaccine confidence and a rise in cases of measles and other preventable diseases.” In 1990, nine in 10 Filipinos believed in the importance of vaccines, but following the Dengvaxia controversy, health workers reported being shunned as “child killers” in communities where they tried to vaccinate children. From 93 percent in 2015, vaccine confidence dipped to a third of that in 2018, a study by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine showed.
In August 2019, the Philippines officially declared a national dengue epidemic. Between January and July 2019, 146,062 dengue cases were reported—98 percent higher than the previous year. In the same year, the DOH noted a measles outbreak in Metro Manila and Central Luzon. From zero measles cases in 2005, the country recorded 12,700 cases and 203 measles-related deaths in January-February 2019. In late September 2019, the DOH confirmed the reemergence of polio with two recorded cases since the WHO declared the Philippines polio-free 19 years ago.
Now, the mistrust haunts negotiations over the COVID-19 vaccine and continues to sow public doubts. Surveys say almost half of Filipinos are not inclined to get a COVID-19 vaccine because of safety concerns. This could derail the country’s target of inoculating at least half of the population to contain the virus, which has resulted in more than 566,000 cases, the region’s second highest so far.
Because Acosta was hitting the previous administration, her irresponsible scaremongering was excused by Malacañang. Per then presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo, she was just “being impassioned with her advocacy with respect to her clients, the families of the victims.”
But with the country now reaping the results of her folly, registering more COVID-19 cases with each day’s delay in vaccines, Persida Acosta’s pestilential chickens have come home to roost. “So sue me!”, she had brazenly responded then to widespread condemnation of her behavior. It’s time that invitation was taken up.