DOST needs more funds to prioritize COVID-19 vaccine development

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 29) - The Department of Science and Technology said it would need a bigger budget in order to primarily focus on developing a vaccine for COVID-19, the lawmaker sponsoring its budget said on Tuesday.

Muntinlupa Rep. Ruffy Biazon presented the proposed 2021 budget of the agency to the House of Representatives plenary.

"Kung hindi problema ang pondo, ang kanilang bibigyan ng priority in relation to the pandemic is drug development, 'yung ginagamit na panglaban sa COVID, vaccine development at pangatlo 'yung medical devices," said Biazon who also spoke with DOST Secretary Fortunato dela Peña.

[Translation: If funding is not a problem, their priority in relation to the pandemic would be drug development used against COVID, vaccine development and third would be medical devices.]

The department initially wanted a P36 billion budget for next year, but only P23 billion was allowed in the proposal of the Budget Department. Biazon said the DOST penned a letter to Congress seeking to restore at least over P7 billion from the scrapped funds.

Other lawmakers also expressed concern over the lower allocated budget given that the agency plays a vital role in finding a solution to COVID-19.

Reading the proposal, Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate enumerated DOST's plans to address the pandemic such as developing new technology that would display a person's temperature on their phones via an app and surveillance technology that would aid in early detection of diseases. The DOST is also developing local RT-PCR diagnostic kits and personal protective equipment, Biazon also outlined.

The country is currently participating in vaccine trials led by other countries. The DOST revealed that the government is spending P89 million to participate in the World Health Organization's solidarity trial for a new vaccine.

Iloilo 1st District Rep. Janette Garin said the amount could have been used to fund the DOST's projects instead. Garin, also an ex-Health Secretary, said it is unusual for the government to pay to join a trial given that the norm is for private pharmaceutical companies to pay the participating country since they are using its resources.

Garin instead urged that a provision be added to the budget bill to allow the Philippines to receive a discount for the COVID-19 vaccine used in the trial. The discount should be equivalent to the amount invested to participate in the experiment, she said.

"Hindi po maganda na nagiging precedent ngayon na naglalagay ng milyong pera para sa research na ang makikinabang ay isang pribadong kumpanya," she argued.

[Translation: It is not good that it is becoming a precedent now that we are pouring millions into research that only a private company would benefit from]

Filipinos have also signed up for vaccine trials under Russia  and China who in turn said they were open to giving some vaccines to the country.

READ: Duterte to ask ‘friends’ Russia, China for credit in COVID-19 vaccine purchase