In a recent public address, Vaccine Czar Carlito Galvez stated that over 3 million Filipinos have been vaccinated since March 1, 2021. But it is still a far cry from the 70 million the government targets to vaccinate by the end of this year to achieve herd immunity.
The Department of Health (DOH) stated its plans to inoculate 100,000 to 200,000 individuals daily once vaccine supplies become stable. But from the 7 million vaccine doses received by the country so far, over 3 million have only been administered nationwide. A tweet from ABS-CBN Data Analytics Head Edson Guido two days ago (May 19, 2021) further brought to light how far the country is from herd immunity. He stated that at the rate we are going, the 70-million target will be achieved in 3 years, and not this year. “We still have a long way to go,” Guido tweeted. “To reach the target of 70 million by end of 2021, the average should be around 600,000 daily. That’s 5.5 times the current pace. We need more vaccines.”
(screenshot from Twitter)
Adding to the challenges of vaccine supply and vaccination processes is the sensitivity of some vaccine brands. To ensure their safety and efficacy, they need to be maintained in very low temperatures in every step of the way— from their arrival in the airport to storage and delivery. With the country’s limited infrastructure especially in remote areas, vaccine quality may suffer, and along with it, the health of many Filipinos.
Fr. Nic in the Providence College laboratory (Courtesy: Providence College)
Developing a Different COVID-19 Vaccine
Such issues are what a new type of COVID-19 vaccine hopes to resolve. Fr. Nicanor “Nic” Austriaco, who is developing this product, has taken his cue from oral vaccines such as the one for polio. “It’s not unusual to have oral vaccines,” he explained. “In the Philippines, we have 110 million people in 7,000 islands, and we have to bring the vaccine to them. Right now, all the (COVID-19) vaccines require very cold refrigerators. I want to develop a vaccine that is shelf-stable. In other words, you can put it on the shelf without the need for refrigeration, and it would still last.”
Biology and theology are Fr. Nic’s fields of expertise, having been trained in molecular biology at the Massachusetts Institute Technology (MIT) in the U.S. more than two decades ago. Currently, he is a professor at both the Providence College in Rhode Island and our very own University of Santo Tomas. He is also a fellow at OCTA Research, an independent and interdisciplinary research group of faculty members that has been providing pandemic data for the country.
The vaccine Fr. Nic and his team are developing is yeast-based, with a shelf life of two years even without refrigeration. “The idea is that we take probiotic yeast, which you can buy in drugstores, and we genetically engineered it. We changed it so that it will produce the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This spike protein is the part of the virus that Pfizer, Moderna , AstraZeneca, Gamaleya all put into your body. So, we are just changing the delivery system.” The yeast, which could be drunk or taken in pill form, would stay in the intestines and produce the spike protein, which would trigger the body’s immune system.
Despite the promising benefits of this oral COVID-19 vaccine, Fr. Nic warned that it may take 6 months to a year before it can be released to the public. “This is why I call this a second- generation vaccine. The expectation is we’re going to be vaccinated nearly every year or nearly every other year. So to save the Philippine government [from spending] billions of pesos to be paid every year to foreign companies, we’re trying to develop a vaccine for the Philippines that is relatively cheap but safe and efficacious.”
Fr. Nic named the oral vaccine development as Project Pag-asa, precisely because he hopes to give hope to Filipinos, especially the poor. “I read a story about a Filipino jeepney driver who lost his job, who lost his house because of the first ECQ, and I realized that we have to protect the poor—the poorest kababayans. The first-generation ones will be great for them but if we do this every year for a long time, we need a vaccine that would be easily accessible to our poor kababayans.”
Like other vaccine developers, Fr. Nic’s team is developing two versions of the oral vaccine—one for the original COVID-19 strain, and one for the other variants. Regarding questions on the oral vaccine dosage, Fr. Nic said that it would depend on the clinical trial. Once the yeast is developed, the first step is to do animal testing. “Once the animal testing is done— if that is successful— then we have to go to clinical trials in the Philippines. So, there are still many steps that we need to do before we can make it available to the public.”
Developing the COVID-19 oral vaccine (Courtesy: Providence College)
Importance of Vaccination
Fr. Nic has already been vaccinated with the Moderna vaccine in the States. He was part of the priority list because he resided in a community of priests, which had elderly members. “The side effects can be rough, especially after the second dose. I was very sick for about one day. I had headache, body ache, fatigue, chills for many hours. But after that day, it was gone.”
Still, Fr. Nic reiterated that the sick feeling after vaccination is a sign that the vaccine is working. “It’s your body fighting the vaccine already. That is why the second dose is worse than the first dose. The older you are, the easier the side effects, If you are young, you can be really, really, really sick because you have a stronger immune system. So, the immune system fights back stronger and you feel sick more— but only for one day. And if you had COVID before, especially if you didn’t know you had COVID, the first dose would be harder than the second dose.”
As for those hesitating to get vaccinated, Fr. Nic said, “I’m one of them who have been vaccinated against COVID-19. I can now walk around the city. I can get on a plane. I can visit other people. It is the quickest way to end the pandemic, right? I am sure you are tired of ECQ. You are tired of lockdown. The only way we can stop this is if all the Filipino adults—70 million adults choose to be vaccinated.”
For Fr. Nic, vaccination is not only a self-protective measure, but also a caring decision.
“Why do we get vaccinated? We get vaccinated to protect ourselves, but more importantly, to protect those around us who are more vulnerable to the disease. When I was being injected by the second dose, I thought ah, my mom is safe now. I was so concerned about my mother’s well-being. She’s a senior citizen, so every time I visit her [in Manila], I was worried that I would secretly bring the virus to her. Now, I know she is safe because I am vaccinated. We are vaccinated not only to protect ourselves but also to protect our parents and our grandparents. Those are really important to understand, especially in the Philippines.”
* interview by Blueberrie Recto