Balik scientist, DOST eyes affordable gold-standard ASF test kits for PH farmers, vaccine to help eradicate ASF

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, June 6) — Although living on the other side of the planet, virologist and veterinarian Homer Pantua coordinates closely with other researchers in the Philippines in fighting the African Swine Fever (ASF) virus.

Based in California, USA, Pantua is a Balik-Scientist tapped by the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) to help make diagnostic kits and surveillance program, as well as evaluate vaccines. The ASF virus has been ravaging the hog industry since 2019. Agriculture officials said it has caused at least P100 billion in economic losses as of May 12.

Pantua founded the Bioassets Veterinary Research and Diagnostic Laboratory. It currently supports DOST's ASF projects.

Here are the updates on their research:

ASF test kits

Pantua said they want to make the gold standard, yet more affordable ASF test kits. His team with ITDI-DOST is currently working on a portable PCR test kit. This will detect the ASF virus DNA from pig blood sample.

"It can be used for certification. It will also be designed to be compatible with field deployable machines," Pantua told CNN Philippines.

Dr Ronnie de Castro, DOST-PCAARRD science research specialist said this will ensure faster but very reliable diagnosis on field.

Currently available test kits for hogs in the Philippines are mostly imported. They usually cost around ₱2,000 to ₱3,000, according to BAI OIC Director Reildrin Morales. BAI also offers free testing.

Pantua hopes to make test kits under ₱1,000 per run. They aim to finish this by 2023.

"We really have to make our own... so we can be self-reliant and self-sufficient kasi kung lagi (tayong) aasa sa kung anong dadalhin ng ibang bansa sa atin, mas lagi na lang tayong maghihintay," Pantua said.

[Translation: We really have to make our own... so we can be self-reliant and self-sufficient because if we keep on relying on what other countries will bring in, we will alays have to wait.]

He adds: "Our hope is to lower it down at a price that will be reasonable for farmers."


Pantua said DOST is also partnering with DA and foreign research institutes to develop a subunit vaccine against ASF. He said this is needed to eradicate the virus. A subunit vaccine uses specific part of the virus to help trigger immune response.

They have already set up a next generation sequencing data. This will allow researchers determine the ASF virus strain in the Philippines—later allowing them "to isolate and culture the virus for vaccine research."

"We're putting together what strains do we have, what are the things we can learn from ASF virus and use those information to develop a vaccine. Hindi pa tayo nahuhuli sa research activities. Meron pang pagkakataon ang Filipino researchers with the help of foreign institutions na makagawa ng subunit vaccines which is fit for eradication program," he explained.

[Translation: We're putting together what strains do we have what are the things we can learn from ASF virus and use those information to develop a vaccine. We are not yet late when it comes to research activities. There is still an opportunity for Filipino researchers with the help of foreign institutions to make subunit vaccines which are fit for eradication program.]

Mobile lab vs. emerging infectious diseases

They also made the very first High Containment Mobile Laboratory unit for ASF testing and other animal diseases. Pantua said the mobile lab will let veterinarians and farmers respond quickly to animal disease outbreak.

"Marami pang emerging infectious disease na kailangan natin i-address na hindi natin dapat hintayin na maging problema bago gawan ng kits. Kailangan ihanda natin ang kapasidad ng Pilipinas na maka-respond sa ganitong sa emerging diseases," Pantua added.

[Translation: There are more emerging infectious diseases that we need to address and we should not wait for it to become a problem before creating kits. We have to prepare the the country's capacity to respond to these kinds of emerging diseases.]

The mobile laboratory and sequencing data were developed under the Building Research and Innovation Development Goals for Engineering SUCs (BRIDGES) project. SUCs stand for state universities and colleges.