Aiming to generate data on the efficacy of candidate vaccines against emerging variants of concern (VOCs) and determine the effective COVID-19 vaccines and doses that are suitable for the Filipino population, the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), Department of Health (DOH) and the University of the Philippines - Manila (UPM) officially launched the World Health Organization’s Solidarity Trial Vaccine (STV) in the country on 17 December 2021 via Zoom and Facebook live stream.



The clinical trial eyes to recruit a total of 15,000 Filipino volunteers from 20 identified sites and barangays with high COVID-19 attack rates across the National Capital Region (NCR). As of December 20,  2021, seven hospitals and two community-based sites have already conducted the recruitment activities with a total of 5,254 participants vaccinated with first dose and 3,142 participants already completed the two-dose schedule in the Philippines.


The WHO-STV is a clinical trial, which aims to study the efficacy and safety of candidate vaccines. Continuing to participate in vaccine clinical trials remains of utmost importance, especially as the current global vaccine supply is still limited,” explains Chair of the Task Group on Vaccine Evaluation and Selection (TGVES) and DOST Undersecretary for Research and Development  Rowena Cristina Guevara on how the clinical trial is separate from the country’s ongoing vaccination program. 


Two of the four candidate vaccines is being initially studied: a spike adjuvanted vaccine developed by Medigen, and a DNA vaccine encoding the spike protein developed by Inovio, as identified by the WHO following the core protocol approved by the Philippine Food and Drug Administration (FDA), DOST-convened Vaccine Expert Panel, and the Single Joint Research Ethics Board (SJREB). 


Our ultimate goal in DOST-PCHRD, and in the Task Group on Vaccine Evaluation and Selection, is to ensure that before any candidate vaccine reaches our communities, it has already shown evidence that it is safe, effective, and suitable for human trials,” DOST-PCHRD Dr. Jaime C. Montoya says. “As we begin to implement the WHO Solidarity Trial Vaccines, we, especially our Philippine STV team, are in need of the united support and assistance of every Filipino in ensuring a smooth implementation of the clinical trials. In the end, what is equally important as scientific research is the spirit of unity and volunteerism among our Filipino communities,” he adds.


Now that the vaccine trials are underway, we are hoping that the data we share with the other participants of the Solidarity Trials will contribute in finding more effective vaccines that can protect the Filipino people,” DOST Secretary Fortunato de la Peña says.


Led by the UPM-PGH, with support from the DOST and the DOH, the local clinical trial will serve as a contribution of the Philippines to the large-scale COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials headed by WHO. The trial has been launched in the Philippines, Mali and Colombia, while additional countries and vaccine candidates will follow shortly. 


Interim results of the local clinical trial may be available to the public by early 2022. 


Written by:
Jwynne Gwyneth Macan
Christine Jane Gonzales

The Department of Science and Technology - Philippine Council for Health Research and Development (DOST-PCHRD) warns the public against the unauthorized use of the results of the Lagundi study on COVID-19 for marketing Lagundi products. 


The University of the Philippines - Manila (UPM), with support from the DOST-PCHRD, conducted the study which evaluated the efficacy and safety of the over-the-counter 600mg Lagundi syrup and tablet formulated through the National Integrated Research Program on Medicinal Plants (NIRPROMP) in treating mild symptoms of COVID-19.


The study showed that the FDA-approved Lagundi products can be safely used for the symptomatic treatment of mild COVID-19. If taken three (3) times a day, the products were found to be effective in decreasing mild COVID-19 symptoms, especially anosmia (loss of sense of smell), and in providing overall relief of discomfort from other symptoms. 


The results, however, cannot be used as basis for proving the efficacy and safety of using Lagundi against COVID-19 in any form or product other than the one used or tested during the trial. Clinical trials validate the efficacy and safety of specific formulations using a specified dose for use against a specific disease. Any product that has therapeutic claims would require successful clinical trials and approval from the Philippine Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before marketing to the public.


Our study only focused on evaluating the NIRPROMP formulation of the Lagundi syrup and tablet for mild COVID-19,” project leader of the Lagundi clinical trials Dr. Cecilia Maramba-Lazarte says. “Accordingly, we have not endorsed any other Lagundi product aside from these, and any other product claims separate from what we studied are not affiliated with the project team, nor  UP-Manila,” she added.


The DOST-PCHRD likewise reminds the public to be critical of misleading product claims. “The study showed that Lagundi may be  beneficial to mild cases of COVID-19,” DOST-PCHRD Executive Director Dr. Jaime C. Montoya says. “Despite this, we'd like to emphasize that the results of the clinical trials on Lagundi against COVID-19 cannot be utilized by any product other than the one used in the trials without the conduct of similar clinical trials. We encourage the public to be on the lookout for misleading product claims,” he added.

Two researchers from the DOST-PCHRD-supported project “UK-Philippines Remote Retinal Evaluation Collaboration in Health: Diabetic Retinopathy” or REACH-DR are among this year’s awardees of the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness’ (IAPB) Eye Health Heroes.

Initiated in 2012, the international award recognizes front-line staff who work to make “a real difference in aiding vision and restoring sight all around the globe” (Eye Health Heroes 2020). Last year, the programme recognized a total of 54 professionals from 29 different countries. 



Among this year’s awardees are Filipino researchers Dr. Recivall Salongcay and Ms. Lizzie Anne Aquino from the REACH-DR project. The project is responsible for the first validated use of artificial intelligence in the field of ophthalmology in the Philippines, where both researchers work on retinal imaging.


The Queen's University of Belfast of the United Kingdom (UK) and the Philippine Eye Research Institute (PERI) lead the REACH-DR program to establish a diabetic retinopathy screening program (DRSP) in the country for a timely diagnosis of those at risk for diabetes-related blindness and vision loss. 


The IAPB described Ms. Aquino as a change-maker who “showed strong commitment and enthusiasm even if the whole experience was new to her” and is “highly proactive, has a strong sense of responsibility and is dedicated to improving the overall level of eye healthcare in the Philippines."


On the other hand, Dr. Salongcay is described as a leader whose “
career goals are anchored on avoidable blindness prevention through local and national eye services that utilize evidence-based, cost- and time-efficient strategies.” He is also described as a professional “with excellent work ethics” who “has consistently demonstrated diligence, determination in his work, and a desire to further his knowledge and skills.”




Working as a Science Research Specialist in the REACH-DR project is an eye-opener, which made me realize the importance of diabetic eye screening especially in our country where diabetic retinopathy remains to be one of the leading causes of vision loss,” Ms. Aquino says. “Through the REACH-DR project, we can help reduce the prevalence of blindness due to diabetes and ultimately, help improve the lives of Filipinos,” she added.


“In the Philippines, around 4-5 million people with diabetes are at risk of losing their sight,” Dr. Salongcay emphasizes. “I am grateful to be part of REACH-DR, a project that has the potential to offer tangible benefits to Filipino patients with diabetes. Being involved in this project is also one of the ways I am giving back to the country and contributing towards nation-building,” he added.

To date, the REACH-DR is recruiting patients among different barangays in Nueva Ecija and Pampanga for retinal imaging. Funded under the DOST-PCHRD and the  UK Medical Research Council’s Newton Agham Program, the project is expected to be completed by 2022. 


Citations for the IAPB Eye Health Heroes Awardees may be accessed through this link.


References:

  1. https://www.iapb.org/connect/members/eye-health-heroes-2021-programme/
  2. https://www.iapb.org/connect/members/eye-health-heroes-2020/
  3. https://www.iapb.org/connect/members/eye-health-heroes-2021/

The Department of Science and Technology - Philippine Council for Health Research and Development (DOST-PCHRD) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Faculty of Tropical Medicine (FTM), Mahidol University (SEAMEO TROPMED Thailand) for the implementation of capacity building activities for health researchers on 13 December 2021 via Zoom. 



The MOU outlines the cooperation between the two institutions, which will provide scholarship grants for masteral and doctorate degrees, enable the shared use of facilities for research and training, boost knowledge exchange, and promote collaborations between other relevant scientific institutions and organizations from the Philippines and Thailand, among others. 


Through this partnership, support will be given in the areas of tropical diseases epidemiologic studies, endemic and emerging diseases associated with changing environment, diagnosis of tropical infections by immunological and molecular biological methods, and tropical medicine and public health.


The virtual signing ceremony was attended by officials from both countries, including Philippine Ambassadress to Thailand Her Excellency Millicent Cruz-Paredes, SEAMEO TROPMED Secretary General Dr. Pratap Singhasivanon, SEAMEO Secretariat Director Dr. Ethel Agnes Pascua- Valenzuela, DOST Assistant Secretary for International Cooperation Dr. Leah J. Buendia, DOST-PCHRD Executive Director Dr. Jaime C. Montoya, and Mahidol University-FTM Dean Assoc. Prof. Weerapong Phumratanaprapin.


H.E. Paredes-Cruz praised the initiative in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. ”It is very encouraging that despite the restrictions imposed on us by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, cooperation between the Philippines and Thailand in the field of science and technology continues to expand and be enhanced as exemplified by the signing of this MOU,” she says.


Expressing his hope for more initiatives like this, Dr. Singhasivanon highlights how the “MOU can serve as a model for other SEAMEO member countries on how best to tap other sources of funds for their health research development efforts.”


Dr. Montoya described the partnership as proof of PCHRD’s commitment to strengthening the country’s pool of researchers. “Establishing partnerships has always been a key strategy for us to accelerate our capacities in health and our overall S&T goals,” he says. “This collaboration will surely advance our knowledge of the field of tropical medicine and public health,” he added.


In his recorded message, Sec. de la Pena emphasized how “scholars who bring an array of experiences, perspectives, and accomplishments” will “be given a valuable chance to work, learn, and come together to make their mark in their respective fields” through the program. “This initiative remains true to DOST’s mission to provide world-class scientific, technological, and innovative solutions geared towards maximum economic and social benefits for the people,” he says.


Under the MOU, the partnership between DOST-PCHRD and Mahidol University is valid for three years.



The Department of Science and Technology (DOST) will hold its first ever Niche Center in the Regions (NICER) Summit on 3 December 2021 which puts a spotlight on regional centers established to address pressing problems on agriculture, infrastructure, and health, to name a few, in their communities and provinces. 

As one of the four components of the DOST’s Science for Change Program (S4CP), these regional research and development centers aim to accelerate capacity building and industrial competitiveness and regional development, shifting the country’s science and technology (S&T) mindset from being an exclusive, peer-centric field to a society-centric discipline where outputs are translated into social and economic impacts for the benefit of the people.

This shift for S&T is part of the country’s move to fulfill its commitment to address the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). For 2030, the UN has 17 SDGs, and the Philippine Council for Health Research and Development (PCHRD) is tasked to fulfill the 13 targets under SDG 3, which aims to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for everyone at all ages in the country. 

Research and development takes years before it could be translated to actual products, policies, and programs for the people, and the PCHRD has long been laying the foundations for health research in the country to ensure that the fruits of Filipino researchers will benefit their fellowmen. 

The country’s current research priorities specified under the National Unified Health Research Agenda (NUHRA) aim to (1) create responsive health systems, (2) support research to enhance and extend healthy lives, (3) promote holistic approaches to health and wellness, (4) promote health resiliency, (5) promote global competitiveness and innovation in health, and (6) support research in equity and health.

NICER for a Healthier Philippines

In order to find solutions to different health problems and promote good health and well-being, the NICER program was created to distribute R&D capacities in different parts of the country. 

In line with DOST’s goal to capacitate the regions and improve their science and technology infrastructure, the Council has started supporting the establishment of Niche Centers in the Regions for R&D or NICER, which primarily aims to provide Higher Education Institutions or HEIs with grants so that they can undertake quality research directed at promoting regional development,” Dr. Jaime Montoya, PCHRD Executive Director said during the NICER virtual presser held on 8 October, 2021.

Currently, the DOST through the PCHRD supports six NICERs for health in different parts of the country:

  1. Center for Innovations for Cost-Effective Disaster Risk Reduction and Management in Health at the University of the Philippine Manila, which focuses on creating action plans and programs for disaster response for healthcare professionals and first responders;
  2. Center for Applied Modeling, Data Analytics, and Bioinformatics For Decision-Support Systems in Health of the University of the Philippines Mindanao (UPMin) and Malayan Colleges Mindanao (MCM), which focuses on using interdisciplinary quantitative approaches to provide practical solutions and/or proactive interventions to prevent, mitigate, and build resilience against diseases, with Mindanao as the pilot model;
  3. Integrated Protein Research Development Center at the Ateneo de Manila University, which aims to develop low-cost diagnostic reagents with comparable functional performance to commercial kits and reagent components and support equipment for disease intervention;
  4. Biomaterials for Therapeutics and Diagnostics R&D Center at the Angeles University Foundation, which aims to develop biomaterials and nanomaterials for health applications;
  5. Institute of Biomedical Engineering and Health Technologies- Niche Center in the Region (DLSU- IBEHT-NICER): R&D Center for Medical Robotics at the De La Salle University Manila, which aims to be a center of expertise in medical robotics R&D , particularly in the development of robotic assistive & rehabilitation devices; robotic surgical devices & technologies and neurorobotic technology, ; and
  6. Center for Vector Diseases of Public Health Importance at the De La Salle University Laguna, which aims to be a center for the control of vectors of diseases of public importance.

As the program implies, these niche centers pinpoint endemic health problems or specialize in creating innovations that address wellness and health issues within their regions. “They are geared at different angles and this is precisely what we wanted to do when the DOST introduced the NICER program,” said DOST Secretary Fortunato de la Peña during the NICER presser’s open forum. “We would like to build an expanded capability, but it doesn’t have to rest in only one institution. We have to spread it geographically because our idea of inclusive development is having a wider participation also in S&T activities from the point of view of the researchers and from the point of view of addressing needs and opportunities in different parts of the country,” the DOST Secretary explained.

However, DOST Undersecretary for Research and Development, Dr. Rowena Cristina Guevara, stresses that these regional centers will not exclusively serve the community and the provinces where these centers are located, but will eventually become instrumental in bolstering the country’s capacity to provide better healthcare to every Filipino. “Ang primary concern nila would be to address the needs of the region, but then meron din tayong plano na eventually, itong mga NICERS natin, magiging national R&D centers. Ang ating hope is that once napakita na nila sa region nila na umaandar yung mga solutions, sana ikalat din natin sa ibang parte ng Pilipinas.” 

Get to Know Our NICERs Better

The very first NICER Summit, with the theme “Inclusive Innovation towards Attaining Sustainable Development Goals,” is a half-day event that provides a platform for scientists and researchers from the different NICER institutions in the country to share what they have already accomplished and what they already have in their pipelines to build the country’s capacities and industrial competitiveness and to promote regional development.

The DOST-PCHRD invites everyone to join the conference on 3 December 2021 and learn how the S4CP transformed science, technology, and innovation through these NICERs. 

Register here: bit.ly/NICER-Events-2021