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Gov’t eyes virology body for future pandemics

By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza and Vann Marlo M. Villegas, Reporters

THE PHILIPPINES is studying a plan to set up a vaccine development center and may assign production to the private sector under a private-public partnership (PPP) deal, according to the Department of Science and Technology (DoST).

Officials of the agency had met with their counterparts in the Health and Trade departments to fine-tune the proposal that will be submitted to President Rodrigo R. Duterte this week, DoST Secretary Fortunato T. de la Peña told an online news briefing on Monday.

“We studied a number of vaccine development and manufacturing in Asia and we want to study the models adopted by Thailand and India further,” he said in mixed English and Filipino.

DoST will lead vaccine research and development of the proposed virology institute, while the Trade department will take care of the production aspect, he said.

Mass manufacturing might be entrusted to a government-owned and -controlled corporation or given to the private sector under a PPP contract, Mr. de la Peña added.

“Instead of muddling the main issue on the current coronavirus vaccine supply, the government should just focus on ensuring that the vaccines arrive in the soonest time,” InfraWatch PH convenor Terry L. Ridon said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

The former congressman said there is no point in discussing a vaccine institute when the problem now is the lack of coronavirus vaccines to ensure a robust mass vaccination program.

“There is no point for the government to enter into vaccine production if the manufacturing aspect will be undertaken by the private sector anyway,” he said.

“What will the government bring into the table? Will it fund research and development into new coronavirus vaccines, when effective and cheap vaccines are already available in the market?” he asked.

In a related development, Glovax Biotech Corp. is planning to build a vaccine plant at the Clark Economic Zone in Pampanga province, Chief Executive Officer Giovanni Alingog said.

“It’s a complete vaccine plant from the production of antigen to the formulation of the vaccine and it also included animal testing and research and development laboratories,” he told the ABS-CBN News Channel.

The local company, which has partnered with South Korea-based EuBiologics Co. Ltd., will hold combined Phase 2 and 3 clinical trials in the country for the EuCorVac-19 vaccine.

The vaccine has shown more than 90% efficacy after the first two clinical trial phases in Korea, Mr. Alingog said.

Glovax is also looking for support from local companies and government agencies, and Defense Secretary Delfin N. Lorenzana had endorsed it to the National Task Force for COVID-19 because “vaccine has become a national security.”

“The government will need, like now, a lot of vaccines and without a vaccine plant, we could not just wait and beg for excess supply from other countries,” he said.

Military spokesman Arsenio R. Andolong said pandemics and vaccines are a national security concern. Pandemics have been a concern in the country’s 2016 national security plan, he said by telephone.

“Definitely, the availability or non-availability of vaccines is really a national security concern and we want to fix that,” he said in mixed English and Filipino. “We have crafted in broad strokes what needs to be done.”

Mr. Andolong added that they will support plans to create vaccine manufacturing facilities, citing the importance of vaccines.

John Paul R. Rivera, an economist at the Asian Institute Management said any initiative to speed up the production distribution of vaccines would benefit the people and the economy.

“It will definitely boost the business climate and confidence because we are executing concrete ways to contain the pandemic,” he said in a Viber message.

Presidential spokesperson Herminio “Harry” L. Roque, Jr. earlier said the President had ordered the Department of Budget (DBM) to allot funds for the proposed vaccine institute.

A vaccine institute would need substantial funds so the country can make its own vaccines, he told a televised news briefing last month. Mr. Duterte wants that to be one of his legacies, he added.

Vaccine czar Carlito G. Galvez, Jr. had said the President wants to solve the country’s vaccine shortage even after his term.

“It’s better late than never,” Ruben Carlo O. Asuncion, chief economist at UnionBank of the Philippines, Inc. said in a Viber message. “The project will definitely help because this may not be the only pandemic that we will see in our lifetime.”

He said the private sector should play a key role in the program. “Public-private partnerships have borne good fruits in the past,” he said.

George T. Barcelon, chairman of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI), said the private sector should get involved in the project.

The Philippines must also tap its Southeast Asian neighbors because “anything related to the field of medicine is a work in progress that needs cooperation among regions,” he said by telephone.

Mr. Asuncion said the project should be transparent to ensure rule-based competition among potential partners.

Strong mechanisms should be put in place to prevent a sitting administration from changing the rules and imposing unfair conditions, he added.

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