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Filipino priest developing oral COVID-19 vaccine effective vs. new variants


Dominican priest and molecular biologist Fr. Nicanor Austriaco is developing a Filipino-made oral vaccine based on a yeast system that would be effective against the coronavirus disease and the more infectious COVID-19 variants.

"We are developing two vaccines now-- one for the original virus and we have some for the variants as well. As you know the variants are taking over the Philippines so we need to develop a version of this vaccine that would be effective against the variants as well," Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, who is also a member of the OCTA Research Group, told GMA News in an online interview on Monday.

Austriaco, who has a PhD from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a trained yeast expert for 25 years, said the yeast-based vaccine delivery will produce a spike protein,  which creates an immune response against the virus that causes COVID-19.

"We want to take a common probiotic yeast, Saccharomyces boulardii is the name of the yeast. You can actually go to Watsons to buy it today. We genetically engineered this yeast so it will produce the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 in your body," the priest-scientist pointed out.

Austriaco said the vaccine is a pill that can be added to water, milk, beer and even wine, which can be easily consumed.

Unlike other types of vaccines, Austriaco said his yeast-based vaccine does not need to be refrigerated since yeast can be stored at room temperature.

"If you are going to make bread, you have yeast. Yeast is a living organism and lives in room temperature. It is not going to die and if it is dry it is not going to die for 2 years," said Austriaco.

Aside from this, Austriaco's vaccine can also be taken without health professionals' help, which means it can also be delivered to Filipinos residing in far-flung areas.

"You don't need a doctor, you don't need a nurse, you don't need an injector, you don't need a refrigerator. For our country, with more than 7,000 islands, millions of Filipinos in the bundok, how will you deliver the vaccine to them?" the expert said.

"This yeast delivery system is very stable. You can put it to a box and you can carry it with you, take it on the boat, take it on the Babuyan islands without refrigerators," Austriaco further explained.

Austriaco said they plan to conduct tests for the vaccine at University of Santo Tomas in Manila wherein they will feed the vaccine to the mice and observe whether the animal subjects will produce an immune response against the virus.

He also estimated that if the yeast-made vaccine works by December this year, they will craft plans on manufacturing the drug and how to distribute it.

"Earliest is maybe by Christmas, maybe we have studies from people, and if it works, I have to find someone to manufacture in the Philippines and we have to figure out how to distribute it," said Austriaco.

Vaccine to be effective vs hospitalization, fatality

But Austriaco said the vaccine may not give 100% immunity against COVID-19 and its variants but it would prevent an infected patient from drying or getting hospitalized.

"I do not expect that an oral vaccine like this is going to have efficacies as high as mRNA vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna but my hope is, it is high enough that it will allow a Filipino not to go to a hospital if he gets sick... I don't want you to get sick, go to hospital and then die," said Austriaco.

"My goal for this scrappy vaccine, this very earthy vaccine is that it will provide enough protection for the Filipino people so we will not have to go to hospital," he further said.

Austriaco said his goal is to create a vaccine that would have an efficacy rate of above 80% to 85% that would prevent hospitalization and death.

He also noted that through his vaccines, COVID-19 will be converted from a killer disease into a "regular cold or even a flu."

The molecular biologist also said his vaccines will boost the immunity response of a person who already received COVID-19 jabs.

"I'm imagining this vaccine as a second line booster vaccine. You have injected Astrazeneca or Sinovac, but now we give you this oral vaccine to keep it up," said Austriaco.

Cheaper vaccines

The Dominican priest, who has taken a vow of poverty, said his vaccines will be cost-effective, similar to buying pills at a drug store.

"Again if you buy isang pill, it is like 35 pesos. You can imagine you have to do this five days in a row," he said, adding that he does not plan to create vaccines to earn money.

In the long run, Austriaco said making cheaper vaccines for Filipinos every year is also cheaper than buying "extremely expensive" drugs from biotech firms in other countries.

"My hope is that next year, when the Filipino people are doing this again, instead of us buying vaccines from all over the world again, then we can just make it at home and we can distribute it," the priest said.

The national government procured millions of vaccine shots from different international companies as it targets to vaccinate 500,000 vaccinations per week in April to one million per week in May.

To date, Philippines reported a record-high 10,016 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the total caseload to 731,894. Of the sum, 115,495 cases are active, 13,186 are deaths and 603,213 are recoveries.

With the National Capital Region and its nearby areas under the strictest form of quarantine, the Philippine government blamed the rise of infections to the coronavirus disease variants and not the lack of government response to the pandemic. --NB, GMA News

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