Yes, we can

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - March 5, 2021 - 12:00am

Can the Philippines be a world producer of vaccines soon? Yes, the Philippines can become one. At least, this was the unanimous view of our three guests during this week’s Kapihan sa Manila Bay via Zoom Webinar last Wednesday. While all three believe this can happen, they conceded realistically it might not come any time sooner yet.

The desired goal came about with the outbreak last year of the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) contagion. Our past experiences with the avian flu, ebola and other highly transmissible diseases that have reached our shores have highlighted the need we must have our own capability to produce vaccines for our own needs here.

It seems we have never learned. We could not even get supply of anti-COVID-19 vaccines from the biggest multinational pharmaceutical companies abroad. Naturally, the State prevails upon the vaccine-makers where they operate to supply first their respective countries before any one else.

For now, Undersecretary Rowena Guevara of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) disclosed our country only has the “fill and finish” capability, or the process of filling vials with vaccine and finishing the process of packaging the medicine for distribution. Many vaccine manufacturers use third parties like those in the Philippines to “fill and finish” their vaccines. Sadly, Guevara admitted, the Philippines has no capability yet to produce the actual antigen vaccine manufacturing that these big pharmas do abroad.

Guevara revealed the Vaccine Expert Panel (VEP) under the DOST is reviewing 26 candidate COVID-19 vaccine that have pending applications with the Philippine government. Guevara confirmed one of those being reviewed – Global Biotech of South Korea – is interested to invest initially P7 billion to put up a manufacturing plant in the Philippines to produce their vaccines that include Globavax – billed as a next generation anti-COVID-19 vaccine that is still in phase 1 clinical trial.

The 26 candidate COVID-19 vaccines are all applying for emergency authority use (EAU) that are all still in various phases of clinical trials yet as allowed by the World Health Organization (WHO). The VEP evaluation is also a requirement in applying for a certificate of product registration with our Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before any successful vaccine developers could sell their products commercially in the Philippines.

So far, only anti-COVID vaccines in phase 3 clinical trials that have secured EAU from either the WHO or from their respective country’s FDA are in the procurement list of our government. These include Coronavax from Sinovac Biotech (China); Oxford’s AstraZeneca (UK); Pfizer (US); Gameleya’s Sputnik-V (Russia), just to name some.

The Philippines would have to rely for now from these big pharma companies so we can fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Hopefully, it will not be for long.

Guevara counts on homegrown scientists and technology transfer can do it for us. The same conviction was echoed by our two other guests in the Kapihan sa Manila Bay panel, namely: Jannette Jakosalem, chief business officer from Zuellig Pharma; and, Atty. Jose Maria Ochave, senior vice president of Unilab Inc. for business development, legal, external affairs and social partnerships. Incidentally, both the Unilab and Zuellig signed up as partners in the cold storage distribution chain for the COVID-19 vaccines that would be delivered to the Philippines.

Zuellig is undertaking “end-to-end” cold storage chain distribution agreements with three local government units (LGUs) in Metro Manila. So far delivered here is the supply of Coronavax that were part of the 600,000 doses donated by Beijing that arrived in our country last Sunday.

Except for poor internet connections, Jakosalem though noted with admiration that the roll out of the vaccination in Quezon City went well. A steady internet connection is vital to the vaccine information being stored by Zuellig in digital card form, she pointed out. The digital card contains information, she explained, aims to track down quickly specific vaccinees who got what inoculation and from the batch lot the vials came from.

Unlike Zuellig, Ochave cited, Unilab is not engaged in third party cold storage chain distribution but their company has pharma-grade warehouse facilities that can accommodate vaccines with specific storage temperature requirements ranging from -2 to -8 degrees to as low as -70 to -80. Ochave disclosed Unilab has a local partner Faberco which is the local representative in the Philippines of Serum Institute that produces Novavax.

While our country has yet to acquire “vaccine security,” Ochave noted, the government must continue pushing “right partnerships with the right companies” in the private sector.

Surprisingly, there seems to be no urgency on the part of our government officials for the Philippines to build the capacity to produce our own antigen, not just engage in “fill-and- finish” manufacture.

Guevara told us there is a pending bill though in the 18th Congress that could help achieve this goal through the passage into law of the DOST-bill on the establishment of Virology Science and Technology Institute of the Philippines (VSTIP). “We are building the VSTIP in order to get to that capability in the next five years,” Guevara could only wish aloud.

The Department of Budget and Management this year, she disclosed, provided seed fund of P284 million to start the research and development (R&D) of the soon-to-be facility being put up in the New Clark City.

However, this DOST bill is not even among the 25 “priority” administration bills selected by the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (LEDAC) for passage into law in the remaining months of the 18th Congress. The term of office of this Congress ends along with that of President Rodrigo Duterte in June, 2022.

That is, if our leaders share this common vision for the Philippines to become a world producer of vaccines. Yes, we can but as to how soon, only time can tell.

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