Biologist-priest Austriaco declines Duterte offer to make him DOH chief

Jamaine Punzalan, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Dec 07 2021 02:31 PM

President Rodrigo Duterte and molecular biologist/Catholic priest Fr. Nicanor Austriaco during a taped meeting on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021. Screengrab from PTV
President Rodrigo Duterte and molecular biologist/Catholic priest Fr. Nicanor Austriaco during a taped meeting on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021. Screengrab from PTV

MANILA — President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday said he would be "happy" to appoint molecular biologist and Catholic priest Fr. Nicanor Austriaco as the head of the Department of Health. 

Duterte said Health Secretary Francisco Duque III "vents a desire really to rest, you know, after all this ruckus against him."

"We would be happy, I would be happy to appoint you as the Secretary of Health, if that is okay with you," Duterte told Austriaco during a taped meeting which the latter attended virtually.

"I’ve been forcing him (Duque) to stay but he would be happy to give way to you, I’m sure," added the President. 

Duque, who was also present in the meeting, replied, "Yes, Mr. President, to another Thomasian." 

Duterte previously refused to sack Duque despite repeated calls to step down from his post since last year over the country's management of the COVID-19 crisis and the P15-billion corruption allegation against medical state insurer PhilHealth that the DOH chief chairs. 

In August, Duque said he was prepared to resign "if the time comes" but added he must first clear his agency of P67-billion fund use deficiencies flagged by the Commission on Audit. 

Austriaco was trained at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is a fellow of the OCTA Research Group. He splits his time between the Philippines and the US, and is working on an oral and cheaper COVID-19 vaccine for the Philippines with his students at the University of Sto. Tomas. 

Reacting to Duterte's offer of heading the DOH, Austriaco said, "No po. No po. Secretary Duque is doing a fine job po and he’s a Thomasian po."

Austriaco gave his inputs about the omicron variant of COVID-19 during the meeting that was presided by Duterte.

In a televised public briefing on Tuesday, Duque said, "We serve at the pleasure of the President, so iyan ay call (that is), the President’s call."

"But tayo, trabaho lang. And masasabi ko lang, we remain focused, if not laser-focused, on the things that need to be done to keep our case really low, minimal to low-risk, and our vaccination trajectory to be sustained," he added. 

(But for us, just work. All I can say is we remain focused.) 

The Philippines has recorded a total of 2,835,154 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Monday, of which, 13,548 or 0.5 percent are active.

Nearly 38.7 million people have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, as of Monday, according to official data monitored by the ABS-CBN Investigative and Research Group. 

They account for half of the government's maximum target to be fully inoculated for the country to achieve herd immunity against the respiratory disease.

Almost 53.5 million others have received their first dose.

Video courtesy of PTV