MANILA - Former President Benigno Aquino III and some of his cabinet officials should be charged with plunder while Sanofi Pasteur should be blacklisted for selling risky dengue vaccines that could lead to more severe cases, an anti-corruption group said Thursday.
Ferdinand Topacio, counsel of the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption (VACC), told a Senate hearing that former Budget Secretary Florencio Abad "recommended the release of P3.5 billion from the general fund" even while it was not approved under the General Appropriations Act or any supplemental budget.
"Funding (for the vaccine program) had already been approved prior to the approval of the Food and Drug Administration," Topacio said during a joint hearing of the Senate Blue Ribbon and Health and Demography committees.
Topacio said Aquino, Abad, former Health Secretary Janet Garin, and seven other health undersecretaries during the past administration "may have elicited kickbacks" when they allowed the drug to be "administered to school children indiscriminately when clinical trials were still incomplete."
Sanofi's Dengvaxia triggered a health scare last month after the drug maker admitted that the vaccine could lead to "more cases of severe disease" if given to those who have not had dengue before.
About 800,000 Filipino children received the vaccine under a government immunization program that started during Aquino's term.
Topacio said 2 former presidents, who he declined to name, told the VACC that the "release of such magnitude could not have occurred without presidential imprimatur."
"The release happened after Aquino met twice with Sanofi officials, thus leading to the reasonable conclusion that President Aquino extended favors to the company," he said.
The VACC also wants Aquino, Abad, and Garin held liable for allegedly violating the Omnibus Election Code when they implemented the vaccination program during an election year.
"President Aquino could not have been unaware that the vaccination program will take place in an election year... April 2016, right smack in the middle of the campaign, and in areas where voting population was most concentrated," Topacio said.
"Officials of Sanofi must also be charged as co-conspirators," he added.
But Topacio clarified that the VACC will not be filing charges against Aquino and his Cabinet members.
"We are not charging anyone. This is denominated as [a] position paper, respectful suggestions. These suggestions may or may not be included in the committee report," Topacio said.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said Topacio brought his recommendation to the wrong venue.
"The charges against the former president and cabinet members should be brought to the proper forum, before the Office of the Ombudsman," said Drilon, Aquino's party-mate in the Liberal Party.
"This is an investigation in aid of legislation. We are here to shed light on the controversy," he said.
VACC has lodged cases against Aquino's appointees, filing drug charges against the now detained Sen. Leila de Lima and impeachment complaints against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and, most recently, Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales.
The House of Representatives junked its complaint against Sereno in September for insufficiency in form, while it gave due course to a complaint filed by lawyer Lorenzo Gadon.