Duterte’s P10M prize for COVID-19 defense belies real cost of vaccine development

April 22, 2020 - 12:01 AM
Duterte in IATF mtg
President Rodrigo Duterte holds a meeting with members of the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) at the Malago Clubhouse in Malacañang on April 20, 2020. (PCOO/Ace Morandante)

President Rodrigo Duterte‘s announcement of a P10-million reward for any Filipino who will “discover” a vaccine against the novel coronavirus can be a good motivator for its local development, but it also oversimplifies the actual process of research and testing.

“Dahil public enemy number one nga itong COVID-19 hindi lang dito sa Pilipinas kundi sa buong mundo, inanunsyo ng pangulo na siya ay magbibigay ng pabuya na hanggang ₱10 milyon sa kahit sinong Pilipino na makakadiskubre ng vaccine laban sa COVID-19,” presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said at a press briefing on Tuesday.

Roque added that Duterte will also give a grant to the laboratories of the University of the Philippines and the Philippine General Hospital to help them develop the much-needed vaccine, although the exact amount was not mentioned.

“Pinapanunsyo din po ng ating Presidente na siya ay magbibigay ng substantial grant sa UP at sa UP-PGH para po makadevelop nga ng bakuna para dito sa COVID-19,” he continued.

Duterte at a virtual meeting with the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations said that all of the countries should be given “fair and easy” access to vaccines and treatments to COVID-19.

There are also concerns raised on the government’s liquidation of funds allotted for measures against COVID-19 since evidence shows it is raising an amount much lower than the supposed P1 trillion to date.

The real deal on vaccines 

The process of developing a vaccine usually takes years of research and several phases of testing before it is proven safe to market.

Peter Glenn Chua, a pharmacy professor, said that developing a vaccine is an investment that costs a lot more than the proposed P10 million reward.

“Vaccine development is a medium- to long-term investment. It needs to be supported not just by health policy but by financing, engineering, agriculture and regulatory frameworks. Just dropping 10M to get a vaccine will not cut it,” he added.

There’s also the assumption that only one individual or group would be responsible in “discovering” a vaccine to receive the monetary reward. In fact, it takes a village.

Chua noted that its development would need a coordination with the local pharmaceutical industry, the academe and the regulatory authority or the Food and Drug Administration of the Philippines.

Another Twitter user referenced a 2011 journal published by the American Academy of Pediatrics which indicates that vaccine development could take up to 17 years and costs up to billions of US dollars.

Vaccine development usually takes up to five to 10 years on average, according to three independent scientists.

More optimistic estimates, meanwhile, point to 12-18 months of development given the scientific community’s focus and the global demand for a COVID-19 vaccine.

It needs to undergo six processes for it to become fully available in the market.

Researchers and scientists first need to gain a basic understanding of the virus, procure vaccine candidates, conduct a pre-clinical testing, conduct clinical trials in humans, earn regulatory approvals and acquire significant manufacturing capacity.

The cooperation of the private sector could hasten the development of the vaccine but experts said that it could mean a heftier price tag when it comes out of the market.

2018 study published in Lancet, a peer-reviewed medical journal, said that it could cost $1 billion or more than P50 billion ($1=P50) to fund the research and development of a new vaccine.

Despite its typically-long development period, more than 60 teams around the world are racing against time to develop a potential vaccine that could save the global community from the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The most optimistic of them say that it could be available as early as 12 to 18 months.

READ: Reasons for hope: the drugs, tests and tactics that may conquer coronavirus

Meanwhile, the scientific community is seeing hope with the experimental antiviral drug remdesivir which has caused severely infected individuals to recover at a fast rate in an early study.