Philippine gov't urged to buy anti-COVID drugs that can also fight Omicron

Jaehwa Bernardo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Dec 05 2021 10:43 AM

MANILA — The Philippine government must get two anti-COVID drugs that deal with all variants of the respiratory disease, including the newly detected Omicron, a molecular biologist said Sunday.

"We have drugs now from Merck and Pfizer and these drugs will attack all the variants equally well. The Philippines has to try to buy these drugs," scientist Fr. Nicanor Austriaco told TeleRadyo.

Austriaco, who teaches at the University of Sto. Tomas and has a PhD in Biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was referring to molnupiravir and paxlovid, which were developed by American pharmaceutical companies Merck and Pfizer, respectively.

Earlier this week, a panel of experts from the United States' Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommended the authorization of molnupiravir to treat COVID-19 after the pill proved effective against the respiratory illness.

The Philippines' FDA has issued a compassionate special permit for use of molnupiravir in several hospitals.

In November, a shipment of molnupiravir arrived in the Philippines through a local pharmaceutical company.

Pfizer's recent study on paxlovid also showed the drug could significantly reduce the chances of hospitalization or death for adults at risk of developing severe COVID-19.

"The Pfizer drug, called paxlovid, is going to be public soon. And once that's public, it will change the way we manage the pandemic because if you get it, even if it's Omicron or something else, we'll just give you the drugs. And you can take it at home - once in the morning, once at night," said Austriaco.

The anti-COVID pill may be prescribed by a doctor to patients who are senior citizens or have comorbidities, he said, noting that the drugs will be taken twice a day for five days.

Austriaco said the drug is not being recommended to be given to young and healthy people, especially those who been vaccinated against COVID-19, because their bodies are capable of fighting the virus.

"This is prescription only so it's in the hospital. The doctor has to prescribe," he said of the two drugs.

"We anticipate that both of these drugs will be used in our hospitals probably in the next few weeks. And then hopefully, it will be available around the world, including sa Pilipinas," he added.

Meanwhile, Austriaco said studies have yet to show if current COVID-19 vaccines are less effective against the Omicron variant, which is what worries some scientists as they acknowledge that the spike protein of the new strain is very different from other variants.

"There is no definitive data pa (yet). It's only been one week and it takes two weeks to do those experiments," he said.

"We know that vaccines still protect you. We’re still not sure how good that protection is. We will know within a week. By next week, we will have a sense of how good the protection is," he added.

Health authorities are extracting blood samples from vaccinated people and mix it with the Omicron virus to see the effects, said Austriaco.

The scientist priest is himself leading a study since last year to develop a COVID-19 vaccine for Filipinos, completing already its first animal test.

He said the vaccine he is developing with his students is oral type, will be stable in room temperature for one to two years, and is hopefully cheaper at P50 to P100.

Amid the start of the spread of the Omicron variant in other countries, Austriaco expressed confidence that the "chance of a surge before Christmas" in the Philippines "is very small", citing the vaccination coverage in the country, especially in Metro Manila, and also if people continue to observe minimum health protocols.

"If Omicron lands at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, it will struggle to spread because everybody in Manila is vaccinated. This is why chances of a surge in the NCR is much smaller than before because everybody has been vaccinated," he said.

"The pandemic is at the best time now, than any time in the last 20 months... We still have to wear mask. We have to be careful with our lolos and lolas (elderlies). But let us celebrate. It’s time to celebrate. There’s no need to panic. We have the best protection now," he added.

Austriaco said he hopes lockdowns will not be imposed anymore in the Philippines and urged those who have yet to be vaccinated to get their shots already.

Asked about the possible surge in cases sometime during the first quarter next year as projected by Health Sec. Francisco Duque, Austriaco said, "If Omicron enters, and it starts to spread, it will take a month or so before it begins to surge."

The Philippines has recorded a total of 2,834,294 COVID-19 cases, as of Saturday, including 14,338 that are active.

It logged its first confirmed infection on Jan. 30 last year in a Chinese woman who arrived from Wuhan City, China where the disease is believed to have first emerged.

The rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine in the country, meanwhile, started last March 1. As of Dec. 2, more than 37.3 million people have been fully vaccinated while over 52.4 million others have received their first dose, official data monitored by the ABS-CBN Investigative and Research Group showed.