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  • Writer's pictureMelo Acuna

Filipino missionary doing research to produce COVID-19 vaccine

Dominican missionary deep into research on COVID-19 vaccine for Filipinos

MANILA – A Filipino-American Dominican missionary and microbiologist is currently developing a COVID-19 vaccine for Filipinos in Providence University in Rhode Island, U.S.A.

Interviewed over COFFEE CHAT Saturday morning, Rev. Fr. Nicanor Robles Austriaco, OP said the Philippine government has made it clear of its intention to inoculate at least 70% of the entire population at the soonest possible time.

Fr. Austriaco served as one of the resource persons during the most recent plenary session of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines where he discussed matters about vaccines and the rollout to the far-flung areas, the different vaccines available as well as moral issues involved in the vaccine production.

“I told the bishops the government’s vaccine rollout to vaccinate 70 million will be an enormous challenge for Filipinos residing in 7000n islands. They need two doses in a month,” Fr. Austriaco said. He also lauded the bishops’ decision to open Church facilities should the government need places to jab the identified recipients at the soonest time.

“Churches, schools and other facilities would help government in its campaign to immunize most Filipinos,” he added. He agrees with the government’s plan to focus on metropolitan areas like Manila, Cebu and Davao and make it a priority in the vaccination campaign because there are areas outside Metro Manila where COVID-19 prevalence remains low. He explained the rural areas show increase in COVID-19 cases whenever people from metropolitan areas return home or visits rural areas.

He explained vaccines would definitely help in reducing the risks brought by COVID-19. Normally, Fr. Austriaco explained vaccines for rare diseases take five to ten years to develop,

“With tens of millions getting sick, it is easier to develop a vaccine and billions of dollars from governments to develop vaccines and we did it in a year, thanks be to God,” he added.

He said pre-clinical trials on animals are required and the second phase involves testing the vaccine to at least 20 people to know if it is safe. Another phase would be the test to a hundred people to know how much vaccine is required to have an immune response. He added the final phase is to test the vaccine on thousands to see if it is both safe and effective.

Tests are made to find out if vaccines prevent subjects from getting sick and to discover if there are side effects.

“I just had my Moderna vaccine and my arm is a little bit sore. In the Philippines, vaccines will be used to prevent severe COVID-19,” Fr. Austriaco said. He said some data have been released on the tests conducted by SinoVac and SinoPharm and would probably be approved in the next couple of months.

The microbiologist turned priest said the Philippines faces problems related to limited supply of vaccines because 80% of the vaccines produced have been bought by the United States, United Kingdom, European Union, France and Canada.

The remaining 180 or so countries will have to source their requirements from China, Russia and India.

“Secretary Carlito Galvez, Jr. has done a great job talking with different vaccine manufacturers. In the Philippines, we will be using a combination of vaccines from all over the world,” Fr. Austriaco explained.

He referred to the World Health Organization (WHO) list of priorities for inoculation including healthcare workers and senior citizens.

“In the Philippines, poor indigent senior citizens will be extended priority. In the United States, poor senior citizens are not given priority and this shows how we care for the poor, the more vulnerable and at risk during pandemics,” he said.

Fr. Austriaco said there are vaccines that would require -70 degrees storage though there are vaccines that could be kept in ordinary refrigerators.

Asked of vaccines’ efficacy, Fr. Austriaco said Moderna vaccines would provide 80% protection two weeks after the jab and as soon as a booster shot is given, after two weeks, the recipient will have 95% protection which may last for a year or two.

Pfizer will provide 70% efficacy after two weeks of inoculation and after the booster show would also provide 95% efficacy.

“It would depend on the vaccine that one would get,” Fr. Austriaco added. When asked of what probably went wrong with the elderly patients who died after receiving the jab, he said they may have been “very, very sick elderly people, very fragile whose bodies may no longer take stress from the vaccine.”

Interviewed from his office in Providence University in Rhode Island, USA, Fr. Austriaco said he is developing a vaccine for Filipinos using a yeast platform.

“I have the facilities for the initial molecular steps while the University of Santo Tomas in Manila has the facilities for platform tests. If it works in animals, we’ll see if we can develop them for the Filipino people,” he said.

He said he has not received any assistance but believes it is much better to have his own support as he can do his research faster because he will not be saddled with writing reports for sponsors and funders.

He said he will utilize novel yeast vaccine platform which he considers “a crazy idea” but could be explained scientifically as there his human probiotic yeast.

He said he hopes to develop an oral vaccine, in the form of years that may be added to milk “and there would be no doctors and nurses to inject.”

“I hope to develop this in packets to be sold at drugstores at a reasonable price of about P10. I will work hard and believe the Lord will provide,” he added.

Fr. Austriaco said his associates who are scientists have accomplished the first steps which may take a month or a month and a half. He will soon return to UST for animal testing which will take several months and should their research succeed, he will soon write the government to apply for clinical test.

“This is the first yeast-based vaccine for COVID-19,” he said.

Asked why not all Filipinos are inclined to submit themselves to vaccination, Fr. Austriaco said the fear of a repeat of the Dengue vaccine in 2017 which caused illness, if not death to recipients, most of whom were of school age.

He said three vaccines have used cells from an abortion in 1972 in Europe which caused some moral implications.

“The Vatican, in December 21,2020, explained vaccines from an abortion is acceptable. The same source provided medicines for cancer therapies and some drugs used in mental health cases and in times of pandemic, using the vaccines would be fine,” he explained.

Similarly, he mentioned the roads in Rome were built by slaves 2,000 years ago and when one walks the streets today, it would not mean he promotes or adheres to slavery.

He said the fact remains abortion is gravely immoral as is brought death to an innocent girl “but God brought good out of evil.”

Asked if it would be morally wrong to use the vaccines to further one’s political agenda, Fr. Austriaco said the vaccines should be delivered to recipients to save Filipino lives and livelihoods.

“To delay the vaccines for distribution for political reasons would be to betray their role to pursue public good and any delay would be unjust because people will get sick and die,” he concluded.

Fr. Nic is a Filipino-American molecular biologist. He has a B. S. degree in Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania and graduated summa cum laude in 1989, He received his PhD in Biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1996 where he became a Howard Hughes Medical Institute pre-doctoral fellow in the laboratory of Professor Leonard Guarente.

His doctoral research focused on the characterization of the first aging genes in the budding yeast.

After his brief fellowship in 1997 at the Ludwig Institute of Cancer Research at the University College of London, he entered the Order of Friars Preachers and attended the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. where he earned his Master of Divinity degree and Licentiate in Sacred Theology. He finished his Doctorate in Sacred Theology at the University of Fribourg in 2015. He also has an M.B.A. from Providence College last year. (Melo M. Acuña)

Fr. Nicanor Robles Austriaco, O. P.

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