"Why didn’t we ever initiate the development of a vaccine or a cure?"
In September last year, I raised this question in this space: Why didn't the Duterte administration even think of initiating the development of a vaccine or cure for COVID-19, and completely relied on other countries, such as China, Russia, United States and United Kingdom, to supply us with the vaccines that would allow us to achieve herd immunity against the dreaded disease?
I asked a graduate of a Bachelor of Science degree in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology from the University of the Philippines in 2018 and who finished his masteral course in the same field at the University of Queensland in Australia last year, the same question.
Here's what he told me in an email:
One, we don't have the scientists. The vast majority of science graduates choose to work abroad because of the lack of job security, benefits, and potential for career progression in this country.
Two, the Philippine government has never allocated enough budget for science and technology (S&T). Therefore, we don't have the facilities to pull off the hugely expensive and complex task of vaccine development.
And three, we don't have tax incentives for foreign pharmaceutical companies and contract manufacturing organizations to operate in the country, which is another reason why we don't have great jobs for local scientists.
With regard to the lack of scientists in the country today, it is sad to note that while UP has produced many qualified scientists in various disciplines, many of them opt to leave for abroad for further study and later find gainful employment in prestigious research institutions. As a matter of fact, many students in Molecular Biology at the premier State University graduate with high Latin honors every year, but most of them leave for the proverbial greener pastures abroad.
And another thing why we cannot expect the scientists who choose to remain here to have the wherewithal to conduct serious research is that the national government considers the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) as the least of its budget priorities, getting a paltry sum every year compared to Education and Defense.
In contrast to the Philippine government's decision to simply wait for the developed countries to supply us with Covid-19, Indonesia has been developing its own coronavirus vaccine for the past three months, which it expects to complete by mid-2021, according to President Joko Widodo.
The vaccine is being developed by the Indonesian state-owned enterprise Bio Farma in partnership with Sinovac Biotech of China.
“We are proud that a state-owned enterprise like Bio Farma in partnership with Sinovac Biotech of China has been able to begin phase 3 clinical trials. Not many countries or institutions have been able to reach this stage,” said a spokesman for the Indonesian government.
And there's even more damning proof that our own approach to fighting COVID-19 has been centered mainly on enforcing draconian quarantine restrictions through the police and the military instead of relying on epidemiologists at the forefront of the battle. This, coupled with the failure of the top health official to effectively put up his dukes against the deadly coronavirus and launched instead a limp-wristed and limited testing and contact-tracing program, have made us, along with Indonesia, among the worst performers in fighting COVID as we have a high number of fatalities now approaching 10,000 since March last year.
We're surprised that a small country such as far-off Cuba has developed its own COVID-19 vaccine and now testing its most advanced vaccine candidate in Iran. Called the Sovereign 02, this vaccine is said to have showed “an early immune response at just 14 days."
It has been difficult to do Phase 3 clinical testing in Cuba because its outbreak has not been as serious as those in many larger countries. Although cases in Cuba are increasing due to the opening of its borders, the country of 11.2 million has seen about 14,000 cases and 148 deaths, lower figures than its neighbors in the region.
Cuba's state-run Finlay Vaccine Institute (IFV) and the Pasteur Institute of Iran have signed an agreement in Havana that will see a Phase 3 clinical trial in Iran, to “move forward faster in immunization against Covid-19 in both countries.”
The Islamic republic has reported more than 1.2 million cases of the novel coronavirus, with 56,000 deaths thus far.
Cuba, though a developing country, has a very vast and modern scientific industry. The Finlay Institute, established in the early 90s, is a leader in Cuban health technology, producing various vaccines such as the tetanus vaccine vax-TET and a combination vaccine against tetanus and diphtheria. The country spends approximately 1.2 percent of its GDP in science and technology.
Cuban scientists have experience in developing and manufacturing vaccines. The national childhood vaccination program has 11 vaccines against 13 diseases, eight of which are manufactured on the island.
If a small island-state like Cuba that has long suffered from long years of severe economic blockade by the United States has a well-developed health system and has been able to come up with its own COVID-19 vaccine, that only tells us that our own priorities are skewed, and resources that should have been channeled to health care and science and technology have apparently gone somewhere else, perhaps in private bank accounts.