A scholar at the US National Institute of Health | Photo by NIH via Wikimedia Commons
During meetings with US officials involved in vaccine development, I have been proposing to have a licensing agreement with the US on the development of mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 and other illnesses such as flu and other infectious diseases and cancer. We have been aggressively working on this, knowing fully well how important this is not only in saving lives but to help with our economic recovery and prepare us for the health challenges of the future.
During the webinar, last Wednesday co-organized by the Philippine embassy in Washington, DC with the US government through the US Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) and the US International Development Finance Corp. (DFC), opportunities for further cooperation between the Philippines and the US were discussed – in particular, capacity building in the area of vaccine development, manufacturing and distribution.
Key Philippine government officials from the Board of Investments, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Health, and the Department of Science and Technology, along with private sector representatives from the pharmaceutical and logistics industries, joined the webinar. This is actually a follow-up to the virtual economic briefing we organized last April that brought together high-level government officials and senior company executives from both the Philippines and the US to discuss economic relations and how to bring the partnership to the next level even as we confront the COVID-19 pandemic and the corresponding challenges brought about by the situation.
“The Philippines has set a vaccine development and manufacturing roadmap into place, and part of the plans include the establishment of the first Virology Science and Technology Institute to be located in New Clark City.”
More than anything, the pandemic – and the limited supply of vaccines available globally – have focused on the importance of capacity-building efforts in the vaccine space for countries such as the Philippines to attain a degree of vaccine self-reliance that will help them prepare to deal with future pandemics.
The Philippines has set a vaccine development and manufacturing roadmap into place, and part of the plans include the establishment of the first Virology Science and Technology Institute to be located in New Clark City. This has been received with excitement from Filipino-Americans who have expressed their willingness to help the Philippines develop its own center for studying infectious diseases, saying many Filipinos are compelled to study in other countries since there are no institutions that offer dedicated courses on virology.
In 2018, the Balik Scientist Act or Republic Act 11035 was also signed into law to encourage Filipino scientists working abroad to return to the country and share their expertise in various fields of research and development. The DOST has, in fact, confirmed that Filipino scientists based abroad are willing to help the country develop its own virology institute. These encouraging developments will help us prepare for any eventuality and keep us from getting caught flat-footed, so to speak, especially since virologists have issued warnings that pandemics are not once-in-a-century events, saying that the next one could happen in 50 years or 10 years or even next year.
Establishing the virology center in New Clark City is actually a smart move since many technologies and logistics and cold chain companies are now looking to set up business at the sprawling 9,450-hectare planned metropolis that is designed to be green and disaster resilient. Of course, the presence of FedEx would also make the Philippines a potential vaccine distribution hub for the Asian market.
“In 2018, the Balik Scientist Act or Republic Act 11035 was also signed into law to encourage Filipino scientists working abroad to return to the country and share their expertise in various fields of research and development. The DOST has, in fact, confirmed that Filipino scientists based abroad are willing to help the country develop its own virology institute.”
We’re pleased to note that the webinar allowed pharma and logistics companies to become acquainted with the tools and products available through the DFC and USTDA to support these companies’ planned growth and expansion relative to vaccine development, manufacturing, and distribution. The discussion also paved the way for the US government agencies to understand better the financing, technology, and training needs of those involved in the health care and logistics industries so cooperation between the government and the private sector in the immediate and longer-term would improve be identified.
As pointed out by DFC Managing Director for Health Initiatives Nafisa Jiwani, the crisis brought about by the pandemic provides an opportunity to transform the traditional approaches to development, specifically in the global health sector that has primarily relied on aid and grant funding. The DFC – which will be setting up an office at the US embassy in Manila – is looking to invest between $5 million and $500 million per eligible project and is prepared to commit up to $2 billion across eligible projects in the next three years.
“The DFC – which will be setting up an office at the US embassy in Manila – is looking to invest between $5 million and $500 million per eligible project and is prepared to commit up to $2 billion across eligible projects in the next three years.”
“Involving the private sector can complement those aid efforts that we are seeing across the globe,” Nafisa said. She added that what is critically important is to ensure a regional approach to vaccine manufacturing, so no one country is left to produce for everyone in the world, and that “no country is left behind.”
Undoubtedly the US is at the forefront of the global response to the pandemic situation, with three of the vaccines that have been developed currently in use. Foremost of these are the vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna that were developed using mRNA technology that has been described as powerful and game-changing, enabling scientists to develop vaccines against COVID-19 in record time.
Simply put, this is the future of vaccine technology where our cells are trained to make “proteins” that would trigger an immune response in the body by causing it to develop antibodies that would protect from the virus the moment it hits you – a scientific breakthrough that offers immense potential to combat pandemics and other global health threats.