The bishops and the virus

DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - March 19, 2021 - 12:00am

“The COVID-19 vaccination program will be the largest and most complex public health effort in the history of the Philippines. It will specially benefit the poor and most vulnerable among us.

“We will have to vaccinate at least 75 million people – every single Filipino adult – scattered over our 7,000 islands. We will have to vaccinate most of them twice within a month.”

With those words, Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, a Dominican priest who is a molecular biologist, convinced Philippine bishops to cooperate fully in the country’s Covid vaccination program. The priest has a Bachelor’s Degree in Bioengineering (summa cum laude) at the University of Pennsylvania, a doctorate in Biology from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the University of Fribourg in Switzerland.

A Filipino-American based in Rhode Island, Fr. Austriaco spoke before our bishops in a Zoom meeting last January. I watched his presentation and I must say it is the best I have seen on the COVID epidemic. He spoke clearly, answered difficult moral and scientific questions directly and convincingly.

Fr. Austriaco spoke with authority on the science and ethics of COVID vaccination, answering doubts the bishops had about it. Our government should have someone credible like him.

The first question he answered was on the ethics of how the vaccines were created and manufactured. Fetal cell lines are sometimes used when developing a vaccine and that had been controversial in religious circles.

He echoed the official statement of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, explicitly approved by Pope Francis that the use of COVID-19 vaccines developed using cell lines derived from aborted fetuses decades ago is “morally acceptable”.

He explained by an analogy… that a Catholic tourist walking on ancient roads in Rome that were built by slaves is not in violation of moral and ethical rules against slavery, nor complicit with the slave masters.

He also assured the bishops that the cells used are thousands of generations removed from the original fetal tissue. Also, no fetal cells are present in any of the vaccines.

The Vatican also noted that “all vaccinations recognized as clinically safe and effective can be used in good conscience with the certain knowledge that the use of such vaccines does not constitute formal cooperation with the abortion from which the cells used in production of the vaccines derive.”

The Vatican recognized that there exists a grave danger, in the form of an “uncontainable spread of a serious pathological agent… In the absence of other means to stop or even prevent the epidemic, the common good may recommend vaccination, especially to protect the weakest and most exposed.”

Pope Francis, already fully vaccinated, said in an interview last January that it is ethical for everyone to take the COVID-19 vaccine.

“It is not an option; it is an ethical action, because you are playing with your health, you are playing with your life, but you are also playing with the lives of others,” the Holy Father said.

After listening to Fr. Austriaco’s presentation and answers to their questions, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) offered to transform church facilities into COVID-19 vaccination sites. The bishops also said they were willing to get vaccinated in public to help build confidence in the campaign.

The Dominican priest-scientist is also developing an anti-COVID vaccine using bio-engineered yeast in his laboratory in Rhode Island. He has also set up a similar laboratory at the UST for use when he is ready to do clinical tests.

What is the science in this path to yeast vaccine?

As explained in an article in Gulf News on Fr. Austriaco, “the method goes something like this: take the coronavirus (or strains that cause severe infections and deaths), introduce some of its properties (like the spike protein) into yeast, and have the yeast multiply the virus.

“With programmed cell death in yeast, the virus dies too, so then you can administer it as a vaccine (to train the body to recognize the pathogen in it, now dead, but still able to kick up antibodies so they’re ready when the real thing comes).”

As a molecular biologist, Fr. Austriaco’s specialization is “programmed yeast cell death’’. He says his planned COVID vaccine can be orally taken and more easily distributed in a country like the Philippines.

“My hope is this vaccine, because it is shelf-stable, you can actually keep it in your shelf, it does not require refrigeration, it does not require injection, it does not require a nurse, it does not require a doctor, that would be the vaccine that would allow the Philippines to vaccinate the poorest of the poor, as well as those who are living in the far-flung islands of our archipelago,” he said.

When asked by one of the local bishops if the vaccines are safe given that their development was rushed in just one year, the priest-scientist explained:

“I trust the scientific process that has gone into the development and testing of these vaccines. These vaccines rely on decades of research. It is not like scientists just woke up one morning at the beginning of the pandemic and started from scratch.

“They were developed in record time because scientists had unlimited funding by governments who are seeking to resolve a global pandemic and its negative effect on every country’s economy.”

Good to see the Catholic Church’s enthusiasm in supporting the vaccination program. They are putting their reputation on the line and that’s a big risk given the government’s inept handling of its pandemic response so far.

The next big source of worry is, as I had written in two columns this week, is logistics.

Just as a reminder to General Galvez and company, the vaccine deployment should be viewed as a supply chain management system with the following key parts: procurement (delayed); delivery to airport; storage; delivery to destination; storage; transport to vaccination stations; vaccination.

To make things work as flawlessly as possible, we should even now be training the vaxers; plotting out how each stage of the process will happen and follow a timeline as also dictated in the DOH manual.

The government must not continue to disappoint. Our lives depend on it.



Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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