Holding clinical trials for a potential COVID-19 vaccine in the Philippines will guarantee the country of access to the vaccine once it is proven effective, Philippine Council for Health Research and Development (PCHRD) Executive Director, Dr. Jaime Montoya told House members on Wednesday.
But there is a catch.
"Hindi po ethical na gumawa ng clinical trial sa isang bansa kung yung bakunang iyon, kapag mapatunayan epektibo, ay hindi naman pala magiging available sa bansang iyon (It's not ethical to conduct a clinical trial in a country if that vaccine won't be made available there once it is proven effective)," Montoya said during the Committee on Appropriation's scrutiny of the proposed P23.8-billion budget of the Department of Science and Technology (DoST) under the 2021 National Expenditure Program (NEP).
"So may garantiya po yan, kapag mapatunayang epektibo 'yung bakuna, kailangang maging available sa bansa (So there's a guarantee, once the vaccine is proven effective, it must be available in the country)," he said.
"Ang tanong lang po dito is, kaagad po ba? Kasi alam natin na sa panahon ng COVID-19, lahat ng bansa ay nag-uunahan na makakuha ng bakuna (The question here is, will we get the vaccine immediately? Because we know that all countries are rushing to get their supply of the vaccine during this time of COVID-19)," Montoya noted.
The answer to this question, Montoya said, would largely depend on the government's negotiation with the foreign vaccine developer, "kung paano po tayo mauuna sa pila (on how we will jump ahead in the queue)."
"Pero definitely po magkakaroon po tayo ng access sa bakunang 'yun (But we will definitely gain access to that vaccine)," he added.
The Philippines' potential role as trial country for potential COVID-19 vaccines is viewed by some as a bargaining chip in terms of assuring supply for the local population, which is estimated at 110 million. This is especially useful for the country, which unlike richer nations can't make advance payments or pre-orders to vaccine developers.
"Would we be able to benefit when it comes to the priority of distribution? Would that be a possible benefit we could negotiate for?" Appropriations panel vice-chairman and Muntinlupa City lone district Rep. Ruffy Biazon asked the attending DoST officials in the mixed live and virtual hearings.
Montoya said that perhaps the biggest advantage the Philippine can gain from such clinical trials is knowing whether or not the COVID vaccine is effective in the context of Filipinos' own genetic make-up, as compared to other nationalities or races.
"May sinasabi na genetic variation tungkol sa pag-respond sa vaccine (There is something called genetic variation regarding humans' response to vaccines)," he underscored.
He noted that the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) prefers drugs that have been backed by trials on Filipinos. "Mapapabilis po ang registration ng mga produktong ito para maging available sa karamihan (The registration of this product will be hastened, facilitating its availability)."
DoST Secretary Fortunato dela Peña had earlier said in the hearing that the Philippines has had for over 30 years a sterling reputation when it comes to clinical trials for vaccines. "Mahusay po ang ating mga vaccine trialist (Our vaccine trialists are very good)."
Regarding the assurance of supply, Dela Peña argued that the Philippines shouldn't automatically commit to purchasing the first vaccine that would get positive results from a local clinical trial.
"'Yung pag-ensure nila (vaccine developer) ng availability, hindi naman po libre 'yun. Kailangan may pambili rin tayo. Kaya ito ay dadaan sa procurement process (As for ensuring availability of the vaccine on the part of the vaccine developer, that doesn't come free. We still need to have the money to buy it. As such this will go through the procurement process)," he said.
"Kapag ang bakuna na ito ay OK, yung isang bakuna na iyon ay OK din, hindi naman tayo puwedeng patali...na kami ay bibili sa inyo dahil dito nila ginawa yung trial. Tayo ay magko-compare pa rin sa procurement process (If this vaccine is OK, and that other vaccine is OK, then we can't commit to buy from them just because the clinical trials were done here. We would still have to compare vaccines during the procurement process)," Dela Peña said.