The Department of Science and Technology (DOST) inaugurated on Thursday its initial Biosafety Level 2+ Laboratory of the Virology and Vaccine Institute of the Philippines (VIP) at its Bicutan headquarters in preparation for the big VIP facility that it is waiting to be built in New Clark City in Tarlac province.

A section of the Biosafety Level 2+ Laboratory of the Virology and Vaccine Institute of the Philippines with some researchers at the DOST-ITDI facility.

Science Secretary Fortunato T. de la Peña and Undersecretary for Research and Development Rowena Cristina L. Guevara led the event, that was beamed online, together with other DOST officials and Industrial Technology Development Institute (DOST-ITDI) executives and employees, on which facility the laboratory stands.

DOST Undersecretary Rowena Cristina L. Guevara with DOST-ITDI staff at the launching of the Biosafety Level 2+ Laboratory of the Virology and Vaccine Institute of the Philippines.

The start of a “world-class” VIP, as Guevara said in her message, de la Peña said it “marks another step” toward achieving the country’s goal of pursuing “self-reliance and nurturing scientists capable of leading in various fields” and “providing more protection for our human health and disease-free animals and plants.”

Both de la Peña and Guevara underlined the necessity for the establishment of the facility as they recounted the country’s difficulties at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, having no advance laboratories and having to rely on overseas facilities.

“DOST makes sure that it also addresses any current and emerging viruses affecting the well-being and health of humans, animals, and plants,” de la Peña said.

“If there’s a lesson we’ve learned from this pandemic, it is to be proactive, Guevara said, that made the DOST, and its attached agencies—DOST-Philippine Council for Health Research and Development (DOST-PCHRD) and DOST-Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development (DOST-PCAARRD) and DOST-ITDI—”came up with the plan to establish our country’s virology and vaccine institute that will arm and equip us to become more prepared.”

“This pandemic has shown us how important it is to be safe and secure from these invisible biological agents called viruses,” she added. “In doing virology research, it is essential to prioritize personnel safety and security.”

She said inaugurating the Biosafety Level 2 laboratory at DOST-ITDI will provide the country’s researchers a place to work on initial projects “safely and securely, while also ensuring the safety and security of the community and the environment.”

She said that while waiting for the passage of the VIP bill to institutionalize and build the VIP facilities in New Clark City in Tarlac, DOST-ITDI, along with collaborators in the country and abroad, already started working on the initial projects of the VIP program.

She explained that the DOST-ITDI based laboratory is “just a part of our preparation” for the VIP.

“It may not be as big as the facilities we are waiting to be established in New Clark City, but this is the start. We need not wait for the VIP complex to be constructed before conducting the initial projects of the VIP,” Guevara added.

As part of DOST’s Big 21 in 2021, the new laboratory will enable researchers to work on different virology projects—from plant and animal to human virology—and eventually generate new knowledge and create technologies which are “Gawang Pinoy at Gawa sa Pilipinas” this early.

In 2020 the DOST has already initiated the cataloguing of possible Philippine strains of Zika, African swine fever viruses, and cadang-cadang viroid through genome sequencing with ITDI as the implementing agency.

De la Peña said to be implemented to start the VIP program this year are eight foundation studies or projects with an initial fund of P284 million.

The projects cover human, animal, and plant virology and the research areas of diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines, in order “to build the VIP’s capacity and help resolve some of the pressing issues in our country brought by viruses.”

Two of the projects are in partnership with Saint Luke’s Medical Center (SLMC) and Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM), while another is for vaccine development in partnership with Baylor College of Medicine, the USA.

The eight projects are: Isolation and Purification of Philippine Common Viruses with Medical Importance and Pandemic Potential for Antigen-Antibody Studies; Combination Therapy: Lytic Bacteriophages and Plant Extracts against Multidrug-Resistant Bacteria; Detection of Food- and Water-borne Bacterial Pathogens using Phage-based Diagnostics; De novo synthesis of a Non-infective Zika Pseudovirus as Reference for Diagnostics and Vaccine Development.

Development of a Real-Time Polymerase Chain Reaction for Point-of-Need Detection for African Swine Fever Virus; Development of a PCR-based detection kit for Tomato Yellow Leaf Curl Virus-Philippine strains; Antigenic Peptides as Potential Candidates for COVID-19 Vaccine (with SLMC); and Development of Antibody Test Kits for COVID-19 using Enzyme Immunoassay (with RITM).

Being a multidisciplinary research and development institution and the only DOST research group with the mandate of undertaking research activities on biotechnology, DOST-ITDI, with Director Dr. Annabelle V. Briones at its helm, is supporting the DOST’s efforts on VIP.

The virology team is supported by seven Balik Scientists who are virology experts. They are Dr. Teodoro M. Fajardo Jr., Dr. Myra T. Hosmillo, Dr. Leodevico L. Ilag, Dr. Christina Lora M. Leyson, Dr. Elpidio Cesar B. Nadala Jr., Dr. Lourdes M. Nadala and Dr. Homer D. Pantua, who have established their careers in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

At the same time, 13 young professionals were hired to boost capacity to conduct virology research, along with DOST-ITDI staff from the Environment and Biotechnology Division and the Pharmaceutical Section of the Chemicals and Energy Division.

Besides the BSL-2 facility at DOST-ITDI, the DOST will acquire a transmission electron microscope and confocal laser scanning microscope, and other analytical equipment for R&D.

Besides Guevara, being the undersecretary for Research and Development, the VIP is supported by Executive Directors Dr. Jaime Montoya of DOST-PCHRD and Dr. Reynaldo Ebora of DOST-PCAARRD.

It should be noted that the VIP Bill was unanimously approved in the House of Representatives and is awaiting for the Senate’s action.

The VIP facilities at Clark New City will house a BSL 3 laboratory, and maybe the 70th BSL 4 laboratory in the world.

“It will also accept local and foreign researchers in virology, diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccine development. Engaging local and foreign Scientists will further boost Philippine capabilities in this field and improve our self-reliance on our resources,” de la Peña said.

Recounting the development of VIP, the Science Chief said that in May 2020, the DOST discussed with the Senate the possibility of drafting a bill on establishing the institute and be able to respond to the needs of the country.

The Bases Conversion and Development Authority has allotted a 5-hectare lot in the New Clark Economic Zone in Capas, Tarlac, as the VIP site.

This state-of-the-art facility is designed based on World Health Organization guidelines for establishing virology laboratories to ensure compliance with biosafety and biosecurity protocols.

At the same time, the Department of Budget and Management allotted a P50 million budget to the Department of Public Works and Highways-Bureau of Design for the VIP’s detailed architectural and engineering design, which procurement for consulting services is currently ongoing.

Images courtesy of DOST-ITDI photo and Photo from the Facebook of Undersecretary Rowena Cristina L. Guevara

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