Yakult? Filipino scientist-priest is set to develop practical way to deliver COVID-19 vaccine

December 11, 2020 - 3:37 PM
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A photo of Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, OP from his Facebook account

A local scientist-priest is proposing to develop an oral vaccine amid the other vaccines slated to roll out in the country in the near future.

Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, O.P., a molecular biologist who is also part of the University of the Philippines’ OCTA Research Team, and his team planned to develop a yeast-based vaccine that is more accessible to Filipinos.

The UST on Thursday re-shared a post from another page called Millennial Catholics that featured Austriaco’s work.

“Our very own UST Department of Biological Sciences visiting Professor Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, O.P., PhD, SThD is bringing his molecular biology expertise into the fight against COVID-19, with a project on yeast-based oral vaccine for Filipinos,” the post read.

Amid the praises in the comments section of the UST, a Facebook user urged the government to support local scientists like him.

Screenshot by Interaksyon

So far, the first vaccine that was already administered to selected patients in the United Kingdom was developed by Pfizer-BioNTech.

RELATED: Filipino nurse May Parsons cheered for administering first COVID-19 vaccine in UK

The national government said it is expecting other manufacturers of COVID-19 vaccines such as  Moderna from the US, Sinovac from China and Sinopharm also from China to apply for emergency use authorization (EUA) in the country.

President Rodrigo Duterte previously signed Executive Order No. 121 that allows the Food and Drug Administration to issue an EUA to COVID-19 drug and vaccine makers.

Palace said that around 24.6 million Filipinos are on the government’s priority list for the COVID-19 vaccination drive.

What’s the yeast-based vaccine?

Austriaco, also a visiting professor at UST, likened his project’s delivery to the Yakult, a popular Japanese milk drink.

He initially proposed this during a science event of the University of Santo Tomas-Department of Biological Sciences held virtually last December 4.

“The goal here is that if we are able to develop this oral vaccine, then we would make something like Yakult. You will just take the yeast and you would drink the yeast every day,” Austriaco said in an interview with The Varsitarian.

The researcher admitted that this sounds crazy. However, it is “worth trying” as it could benefit Filipinos.

“Otherwise we will wait for one or two years here in the country to vaccinate our entire population,” he said.

In a separate interview with News5 on December 9, Austriaco also said that he initiated this project out of frustration over the costs of vaccines being developed in the West.

“My own laboratory has started a project to try to develop a yeast-based oral vaccine for the Filipino people because I have become so frustrated with the costs as well as for the necessities for refrigeration for many of the modern vaccines being developed in the West,” he said.

Austriaco shared a bit of the process. Using the probiotic yeast available in the market, he and his team would genetically modify it to induce the immune system response against the deadly virus.

He also noted that this type of yeast is similar to the one being fermented to produce beer.

Through this process, Austriaco hoped to reduce the use of syringes, the need for refrigeration, and the need for manual labor of health workers given that the vaccine can be administered via drinking.

He planned to return to his laboratory in the United States first in January to finish the genetic engineering of the probiotic yeast.

Then, Austriaco planned to bring it back to the Philippines in his laboratory setup in UST.