Fr. Austriaco looks back at Covid-19 service to the nation in 14th Carmen G. Kanapi Memorial Lecture

Recalling his three-year service to the Philippines throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Dominican priest and molecular biologist Rev. fr. Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco, O.P., PhD, SThD shared his reflections in doing science and keeping the Filipinos updated during his Balik Scientist Program exit presentation on November 23, 2022 at the Dr. George S.K. Ty Function Hall, 4/F of Buenaventura G. Paredes, O.P. Building. Fr. Austriaco’s lecture was delivered during the 14th Carmen G. Kanapi Memorial Lecture.

Service through data analysis and pandemic management

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Fr. Austriaco wrote the paper the “Mobility-guided Modeling of the COVID-19 Pandemic in Metro Manila”, patterned after Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s model, together with Assoc. Prof. Bernhard Egwolf, Dr. rer. nat. of the Department of Mathematics and Physics and Research Center for Natural and Applied Sciences to examine the trends and the dynamics of the pandemic in the National Capital Region.

After publishing the said model, he was invited to join the OCTA Research Team, a private polling, research, and consultation firm that sends out COVID-19 pandemic-related advisories. Fr. Austriaco, Dr. Guido David, and political scientist Ranjit S. Rye are its core members.

One of fr. Austriaco’s service highlights was on July 28, 2021, just when the Delta variant entered the country. He immediately urged the national government for a swift lockdown since the said variant is the most “aggressive” to date, leaving a high death toll in India in April 2021.

As a result, according to fr. Austriaco, the early lockdown slowed down the viral transmission on ground that saved the lives of Filipinos and the action also paved an economically viable fourth quarter in 2021, which the Filipinos enjoyed after experiencing lockdown fatigue.

“My whole life prior to this was ‘science for science sake’, and now I came to understand that science can be brought to service—for public service in this case–to help the Filipino people,” he said.

Developing a shelf-stable and efficacious vaccine for the Filipino people

Project Pag-asa, or the DominiVax project, is a brainchild of fr. Austriaco, and it aims to make the vaccine accessible to the Filipinos. The vaccine at works is a genetically engineered human probiotic yeast, Saccharomyces boulardii, that replicates the SARS-CoV2 spike protein.

He noted that if yeast, which has a 3-5 days life span in the body when ingested, can deliver antibodies to the stomach, why not deploy antigens that prompt the human immune system to build immunity, he argued.

Fr. Austriaco was recently honored with DOST-Philippine Council for Health Research Development (PCHRD) 2022 Short Term Balik Scientist. Through the said program, Filipino scientists, technologists, and experts are invited to return to their country to share their expertise to promote scientific, agro-industrial, and economic development.

At present, fr. Austriaco teaches at Department of Biological Sciences and at the Faculty of Sacred Theology.

Dr. Kanapi, the Thomasian Geneticist

Dean Emerita Carmen G. Kanapi is considered as the first Filipina to earn a doctorate degree (PhD) with a specialization in Genetics, which she earned in the University of Texas. She specialized in the genetics of the fruit fly Drosophila spp.

The renowned Geneticist served as Dean of the College of Science from 1982 to 1996, and is its first female leader. She also served as the Dean of the UST Graduate School.

“[Kanapi] is a trailblazing servant leader; a woman of science; and an exemplar of the Thomasian Core values of Competence, Commitment, and Compassion,” said former Science Dean Prof. John Donnie A. Ramos, PhD in his tribute.

Photo credit: UST Department of Biological Sciences