Catching up on virology

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    WITH President Duterte and Harry Roque always saying that we need the vaccine to survive and return to our normal lives, and that we await whatever coronavirus vaccine is being produced in China, Russia, the US or Europe, and we have in fact allocated in the 2021 national budget some P2.5 billion for the purchase of these vaccines, we wonder if it ever occurred to the President that the nation should at least take the first step in developing our capabilities in virology and related sciences?

    The Philippines and Indonesia both grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic unprepared, weighed down by an uncooperative and clueless population; inexperienced doctors, nurses and health officers; very limited personal protective equipment, critical care facilities, etc. Both countries needed foreign help to fight the epidemic, and until now these neighbors look forward to foreign-developed vaccines to solve this public health problem.

    The difference is that early on, Indonesian President Joko Widodo already fast-tracked the establishment of a virology research center in Jakarta, with the aim of producing his country’s own vaccine. Always looking in the direction of China, Duterte failed to do this.

    ‘The difference is that early on, Indonesian President Joko Widodo already fast-tracked the establishment of a virology research center in Jakarta…’

    It is thus to the credit of the House of Representatives, particularly its Committee on Health and the panel’s chair, Rep. Angelina “Helen” Tan of the 4th district of Quezon, that we now have a technical working group (TWG) to help the House in consolidating seven bills creating the Philippine Virology Science and Technology Institute (VIP). Also keen in this effort is the COVID-19 Response Cluster of the Defeat COVID-19 ad hoc committee in the House.

    Congresswoman Tan, who is a physician, said the creation of the VIP would be a concrete step and strategic response to the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. It will also serve as a preparation for future epidemics and other public health problems.

    Tan’s committee recently discussed in an online hearing the seven measures — House Bill Nos. 6793, 6798, 6808, 6838, 6873, 6913, and 6992 — which all seek to institutionalize the Philippine Virology Science and Technology Institute.

    Science and Technology Secretary Fortunato dela Peña told Rep. Tan’s committee that the proposed virology institute has gained support from the Bases Conversion and Development Authority for the construction of its building and that the proposed General Appropriations Act has set aside P339 million for its initial operation next year (the actual figure is P283.5 million).

    This piece of good news all the more prodded Rep. Tan to fast-track the creation of the TWG to handle the seven bills’ consolidation, with supportive efforts from her fellow congresspersons, Zambales 2nd District Rep. Cheryl Deloso Montalla, Catanduanes Rep. Hector Sanchez, Batanes Rep. Ciriaco Gato Jr., and Albay 2nd district Rep. Joey Salceda.

    The proposed Virology Institute of the Philippines will cut the nation’s dependence on other countries as far as the development and production of vaccines is concerned, Montalla and Tan said.

    Viral pathogenic and genetic information that will be the products of these researches will be used to guide the monitoring of disease outbreaks by determining the prevalent strains, management of infected patients by identifying drug-resistant strains, and aid in the design of vaccines and antiviral drugs by identifying molecular targets, Montalla pointed out.
    We will be forever grateful to the vision of these representatives — of course to include Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano — if we can have a fully functioning virology institute in a couple of years from now.