Filipino micro-biologist priest developing cheaper, yeast-based orally delivered COVID-19 vaccine

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Dominican priest,  author and professor of Biology at Providence College in Rhode Island in the US Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, OP is developing a yeast-based anti-COVID-19 vaccine delivery system that is significantly cheaper than the most affordable vaccine available today.

Fr. Austriaco is a member of the OCTA Research Group, has a PhD from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a trained yeast expert for 25 years.

He said the yeast vaccine delivery “will produce a spike protein which creates an immune response against the virus that causes COVID-19.”

“We are developing two vaccines now – one for the original virus and we have some for the variants as well. As you know, the variants are taking over the Philippines so we need to develop a version of this vaccine that would be effective against the variants as well,” Fr. Austriaco told GMA News in a virtual interview.

“We want to take a common probiotic yeast, Saccharomyces boulardii. You can actually go to Watsons to buy it today. We genetically engineered this yeast so it will produce the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2 in your body,” he added, noting the vaccine is a pill “that can be added to water, milk, beer and even wine, which can be easily consumed.”

Affordable and easy to store

Fr. Austriaco said his COVID-19 oral vaccine does not need to be refrigerated as yeast can be stored at room temperature and can be taken without health professionals’ help.

“If you are going to make bread, you have yeast. Yeast is a living organism and lives in room temperature. It is not going to die and if it is dry, it is not going to die for two years,” Austriaco said.

“You don’t need a doctor, you don’t need a nurse, you don’t need an injector, you don’t need a refrigerator. For our country, with more than 7,000 islands, millions of Filipinos in the bundok, how will you deliver the vaccine to them?” he noted.

“This yeast delivery system is very stable. You can put it in a box and you can carry it with you, take it on the boat, take it on the Babuyan islands without refrigerators,” he added.

Austriaco says they are planning to conduct tests for the oral vaccine at the University of Santo Tomas (UST) in Manila, feeding it to the mice and observe whether the animal will produce an immune response against COVID-19 as they plan to make it available by December 2021.

“Earliest is maybe by Christmas, maybe we have studies from people, and if it works, I have to find someone to manufacture it in the Philippines and we have to figure out how to distribute it,” Austriaco said.

Catholic news site Licas.news reported that Fr. Austriaco and his colleagues will also be doing experiments in his US laboratory.

“There is no need for me to approach any government agencies at this time because this is still a lab-based project. I would only have to seek government approval if the vaccine delivery system works in animals. We will not know this for many months,” he said.

“Enough protection for the Filipino people”

In his interview with Sunstar Philippines, Fr. Austriaco said his project dubbed Project Pag-asa is in its early stages of development.

“It is a crazy idea but it has to be tested in the small chance that it would work. I decided to do this for the well-being of the Filipino people,” Austriaco said, noting the initial stages of the project is not expensive.

 

“I thought about developing this vaccine when I realized that many of the available vaccines being manufactured today have already been promised to resource-rich countries,” Fr. Austriaco said.

 

In his interview with GMA News, Fr. Austriaco said the vaccine may not give 100 percent immunity against COVID-19 unlike mRNA vaccines but it would prevent an infected patient from getting hospitalized or dying.

“I do not expect that an oral vaccine like this is going to have efficacies as high as mRNA vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna but my hope is, it is high enough that it will allow a Filipino not to go to a hospital if he gets sick… I don’t want you to get sick, go to hospital and then die,” Fr. Austriaco said.

He noted that his target is “to create a vaccine that would have an efficacy rate of above 80 to 85  percent that would prevent hospitalization and death” and to “convert COVID-19 from a killer disease into a regular cold or even a flu.”

Fr. Austriaco said the oral vaccine could also boost the immunity of a person already inoculated against COVID-19.

“I’m imagining this vaccine as a second phase or booster shot. After AstraZeneca or Sinovac this oral vaccine should keep it up,” he said.

The molecular biologist also noted that the oral vaccine will be cost-effective, just like buying pills at a drug store.

“Again if you buy isang pill, it is like 35 pesos. You can imagine you have to do this five days in a row,” Fr. Austriaco said, insisting he does not plan to do it for money.

“My hope is that next year, when the Filipino people are doing this again, instead of us buying vaccines from all over the world again, then we can just make it at home and we can distribute it,” he added.

The Philippine government is targeting to vaccinate 70 million Filipinos against COVID-19 to achieve herd immunity. The plan is to inoculate 500,000 people per week in April, then up to one million per week in May.

NCR Plus bubble just entered a one-week return to enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) from March 29 to slow the surge of infections, with the country logging its record-high 10,016 new infections at the start of the lockdown.

As of press time,, the country has 115,495 active COVID-19 cases, 13,186 deaths and 603,213 recoveries.

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