Filipino biologist-priest hopes to make locally-developed COVID-19 vaccine available by 2022

Published March 30, 2021, 1:18 PM

by Ellalyn De Vera-Ruiz

Molecular biologist Fr. Nicanor Austriaco Jr., who is working on developing a yeast-based oral vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), is hoping to make the vaccine available to Filipinos by next year. 

(Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP / FILE PHOTO)

“The government has already bought enough vaccines. I am thinking actually for next year because we are going to be vaccinated every year. I am thinking more next year once this has been tested. By the end of this year hopefully we will have some good animal data and then we will try to work with people,” Austriaco said in a DZBB interview on Tuesday, March 30.

“Otherwise we will have to buy all these vaccines from all over the world every year. Wow! Very expensive,” he said.

Austriaco is a molecular biologist from the Providence College in Rhode Island, United States and visiting professor of Biological Sciences at the University of the Santo Tomas in Manila.

Along with his two students, Austriaco is developing two vaccines against the original SARS-CoV-2 virus and new virus variants causing COVID-19.

“The big ones are the B.1.1.7 or UK variant and B.1.351 or South African variant. Those are the ones that we are focusing our work on. Because the P.3 Philippine variant, there is no scientific evidence yet that it is actually more transmissible,” Austriaco said.

“Gawa na (the vaccine is already done), I’ve done it already. We’re just testing it now,” he added.

He explained that the yeast used to develop the oral vaccine is expected to produce spike protein, which will then elicit an immune response just like an injected vaccine.

“We put the probiotic yeast and we genetically engineer it here in the US to make this the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2. After that I want to take it to the Philippines to test in animals. If it works in animals then we will have to talk to the government if we can begin clinical trials to Filipinos,” he said.

“Now we’re just doing the biochemical test, we have to say how much protein is being made by the yeast, how large is the protein. At different temperatures, will it change the amount it is making? Once we understand that then we have to move to the animals,” he added.

Austriaco said the oral vaccine will be in gel capsule form that can be mixed with food. It also does not need refrigeration. 

“It’s shelf stable at room temperature and could last around two to three years,” he said.

“We do it day-by-day, we’re doing it slowly. Again we’ll do the best science but only God knows if it will work,” he added.