In the summer of 2016, the dengue vaccine Dengvaxia by pharma giant Sanofi was launched in the Philippines through widescale immunization programs. The goal was to vaccinate millions of Filipino children in order to disrupt the rising dengue cases in the country. A year later, Sanofi’s latest trials suggested that Dengvaxia might endanger the dengue-naive population to severe dengue infections.
This retrospective classification caused a national scandal that involved public officials, scientists, and expectedly, the Department of Health (DOH) of the Philippines. In 2018, the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO), headed by Atty. Persida Acosta, filed lawsuits against public officials, Sanofi executives, and Zuellig Pharma, the distributor of Dengvaxia in the Philippines. Deaths were linked to Dengvaxia, and there was blame to be traced: from the Filipino officials that greenlit the widescale administration, up to Sanofi, the drug manufacturer.
In February 2019, a year after the scandal first erupted in public, the Philippine Food and Drug Administration revoked Dengvaxia’s license with finality, citing as reason Sanofi’s failure to “comply with post-marketing commitments”.
The so-called “Dengvaxia scare” started a domino effect and undid years of public health efforts in educating the Filipinos about the importance of vaccines. Parents, understandably, became reluctant to have their children immunized. Safety fears and the level of mistrust in vaccines rose. Consequently, vaccine-preventable diseases found footing in the archipelago. In August 2019, DOH declared a national dengue epidemic. By November, there were 43,000 cases and at least 550 measles-related deaths. Moreover, polio resurfaced after two decades of dormancy. All these happened in just one year.
Not even 5 years after the Dengvaxia scandal, the Philippines and the rest of the world are facing yet another vaccine-related issue: the COVID-19 vaccine, which is still being developed and being done so at a blistering pace. It needs mentioning that this vaccine race is taking faster than the usual 10–15 years of vaccine development.
Taking from the experience with Dengvaxia, would Filipinos be willing to get vaccinated, if and when the COVID-19 vaccine becomes available?
At the moment, nothing is certain.
What’s certain, however, is that the growing mistrust in vaccination would take concerted effort to eradicate. Public health officials must work with media organizations in educating the public on the safety and efficacy of vaccines. Moreover, the vaccine also has to be made accessible and affordable, especially in the Philippines, a country that is not only widely divided by bodies of water but by socioeconomic classes.