Can Duterte reward push ‘fast, furious’ COVID-19 vaccine search?

Christian V. Esguerra, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 28 2020 12:39 PM

A woman holds a small bottle labeled with a "Vaccine COVID-19" sticker and a medical syringe in this illustration taken April 10, 2020. Dado Ruvic, Reuters/Illustration

MANILA -- President Rodrigo Duterte is dangling a P50-million reward to push Filipino scientists to get more involved in an unprecedented global effort to find a vaccine for COVID-19.

But vaccine development is a “very complex” and costly process even with the current level of cooperation unheard of prior to the coronavirus pandemic, which has sickened around 3 million people worldwide.

“While President Duterte’s heart may be in the right place, even a reward of P50 million will not push the vaccine to be developed even faster,” said Teodoro Padilla, executive director of the Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Association of the Philippines (PHAP).

Medical experts are looking at 12 to 18 months before a vaccine for COVID-19 could be discovered, a “very optimistic timeline assuming everything goes well,” Dr. Mei-Shang Ho, an infectious diseases specialist and a member of Taiwan’s pandemic response task force.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is now pooling resources and expertise across countries to accelerate the development of vaccines and treatment for COVID-19.

The Philippines is also part of the WHO’s “solidarity clinical trial” where specialists examine patients among participating countries in search for treatments that work.

COMPLICATED PROCESS

Developing a single vaccine usually costs around $1 billion to 2 billion and takes several years, said Dr. Beaver Tamesis, PHAP president.

“Everybody’s really working together to try to compress these timelines,” he said on ANC’s “Matters of Fact” podcast.

“I wish it were that simple, I really wish it were. Unfortunately, it’s a very complicated process.”

Vaccine development involves the exploratory and pre-clinical phases, clinical development, regulatory, review and approval, manufacturing, and quality control. 

The WHO currently listed 6 candidate vaccines for clinical evaluation and 77 other for the preclinical phase.

“Of course, with the pandemic, you have the resources of all of thee countries and companies that are working fast and furiously to put this (vaccine) together,” Padilla said.

“But we cannot accelerate the timelines as much as we can. Twelve months is already a reach. It may be attainable, but it’s definitely a reach.”

Tamesis said many Filipino scientists are capable of developing vaccines, but the availability of research laboratories would be a problem.

“(For) a vaccine, you actually have to grow (the virus or bacteria) in the laboratory and you’re not even sure that you’ll actually get a yield,” he said.

“It’s not like you’re just making a cookie cutter-type product. You actually have to grow the damn thing.”