Lockdown-weary Filipinos must keep their face masks on and make do with Zoom drinking sessions as a vaccine against COVID-19 is still months away under an accelerated search and trial process, the public health veteran in charge of the effort said Tuesday.
Microbiologist and immunologist Nina Gloriani said she and her team of five had been searching since March for COVID-19 vaccine candidates and potential testing sites in Metro Manila and Cebu. She said local trials could start by September or March and would run for six months, making a vaccine this year unlikely based on that timeline.
“Under normal circumstances, mas matagal pa (it would take longer), maybe 10-14 years,” Gloriani told reportr. “Some are even asking why we are in a hurry. We are following science in the trials.”
The Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) against COVID-19 approved 5 vaccines for Phase 3 testing in the Philippines and China’s Sinovac is moving fastest since it has a technical consultant in Manila to coordinate with the Food and Drug Administration, she said.
Phase 3 is the last stage of trials before a vaccine can be made commercially available. Phase 1 starts with a small group and the testing pool is increased for Phase 2. The five candidates underwent the first two phases of testing in China and Taiwan where they were manufactured, Gloriani said.
The Philippines is one of just seven countries outside China where Sinovac sought to test its COVID-19 Phase 3 trial. Field tests are being done in Brazil, she said.
In a parallel effort, the Philippines also signified its intention to participate in “solidarity trials” for vaccine’s handpicked by the World Health Organization, which could move faster, given multiple countries are monitored, she said.
Under a medium-term plan that stretches beyond 2021, Gloriani said local pharmaceuticals would “finish and fill” vaccines locally, meaning the finished substance is imported in bulk and bottled in the country versus importing individual vials. This makes the distribution faster. The Philippines imports all its vaccine requirements.
The COVID-19 vaccine strategy was crafted and is continuously refined through weekly Zoom meetings with the team composed of Gloriani, an infectious disease specialist, an immunologist, a pharma representative, a chemist and a statistician. The process involves back-and-forth with the IATF and a sub-technical working group, he said.
Why does a vaccine take that long?
Vaccines take years to develop and the WHO made an exception for COVID-19 because of the pandemic, Gloriani said. In the Philippines, the virus lockdown tipped the economy into a recession and padded the number of jobless Filipinos to 7.3 million.
Trials take time given the window of two weeks at a time to monitor COVID-19 infection, Gloriani said. During the trial, health authorities monitor three things: efficacy, possible side effects and immunogenesis or the ability of the body to build its defense against the virus, she said.
The vaccine strategy committee has identified four hospitals in Metro Manila and one in Cebu for the trials. These were selected based on their track record for good practice and capacity to test for COVID-19 at the shortest notice. Communities near hospitals are also being considered, she said.
The number of participants in the Phase 3 field trials will depend on the infection rate or the speed at which the virus spreads. Philippine regulations require a Phase 4, which allows commercial sale with strict monitoring. Gloriani said the Philippines could deploy a vaccine as soon as Phase 4.
How do I keep safe before a vaccine?
Gloriani said the prospect of a vaccine and the easing quarantines should not lull the public into complacency.
“We shouldn’t just sit and wait for a cure or a vaccine,” she said. “We can help, minimum health precautions, that’s what the public must understand.”
“I still see people not wearing face masks, loitering. People must understand that it’s a responsibility, not just to themselves, but to others.”
Take social drinking, for example. Gloriani said chatting in between shots is unavoidable and the uncovered mouth of an infected person could spread the virus and infect those around him or her.
The current general community quarantine in Metro Manila, the second lowest in a four-scale quarantine system will expire on July 15. And with infections rising, officials said restrictions could be tightened in some areas.
“The larger responsibility is with the people. We have to do more to stop the spread of the virus,” Gloriani said.