Fr. Nicanor Robles Austriaco is a Filipino-American scientist, microbiologist, and professor, as well as a priest of the Dominican order. His project is called Pagasa, which in Filipino means Hope. If this vaccine is a success, it would be a great hope for millions of poor people in the world and for the general population. He gave an exclusive interview to Aleteia.
Father Nicanor, thank you very much for this interview for Aleteia. Where are you from?
I’m a Filipino priest of the Dominican order. I’m also a molecular biologist who has spent the last 20 years using yeast cells to study the molecular basis of cancer.
What was the first calling you felt: to the priesthood or to research? Why did you become a priest scientist? It might seem like an unusual combination to many people.
I met the Lord while completing my PhD in Biology at MIT in the United States, so I was a scientist first before being ordained a priest. It’s unusual, but it doesn’t have to be. As St. John Paul II reminded the Church, faith and reason are both gifts from God.
How would you describe COVID? Is it a curse, a sign of the end times? Is this virus apocalyptic?
COVID-19 is a respiratory disease caused by a new coronavirus that has reached pandemic proportions. The world has experienced pandemics before and will experience them again. Pandemics are part of the fabric of history. From a theological perspective, they can be both a time of chastisement and a time of renewal.
Are the vaccines being developed safe? Is it safe to get vaccinated, and should Catholics get vaccinated?
Vaccines that are deemed safe during clinical trials are safe. Everyone should be vaccinated to protect themselves and their loved ones.
God has given scientists the ability to create COVID-19 vaccines in record time. We should now use these vaccines to protect the elderly and those who are most vulnerable to disease to end the pandemic. This is being done by numerous governments around the world. Without the vaccine, people will continue to get sick and some will continue to die, especially the elderly.
Is it feasible and possible to develop a vaccine for the poor?
The poor are beloved of the Lord. We should make COVID-19 vaccines available to them at no cost. This is both the ethical thing to do, because we should provide for those in need, and the scientific thing to do, because the poor often live in densely populated areas that tend to harbor the virus. If we want to eradicate the virus, then we have to vaccinate everyone, especially those most vulnerable to getting sick.
Are you developing a vaccine? How is it going? Please share your progress with us.
I’m a yeast molecular biologist. I’m trying to develop a yeast vaccine delivery system for COVID-19 that would be cheaper and easier to implement than the standard vaccines currently available. It’s a crazy idea, but there’s a lot of scientific research suggesting that such a yeast vaccine delivery system could work. I put my lab on this project after learning about the challenges the Filipino people would have in acquiring and deploying vaccines developed in the first world. We have begun vaccine development and it will take many months to determine if it’s effective in animal models.
Who’s funding your research? How much will the vaccine you are developing cost? Do you already have sponsors or donors?
I have a small grant from Providence College that supports the preclinical stages of our vaccine development plan. For now, our main goal is to develop the system and then test the system in mice to see if it works. If the vaccine works in animals, then I would have to explore next steps. I am currently without sponsors or donors, and I’m not looking for them at this time. God has provided us with enough funds to begin the work. I know He will provide what we will need later if this works. We do not have a name for the vaccine, as we are still developing it. The project is called Project Pagasa, which means “hope” in the Filipino language.
Finally, what do you consider to be the best vaccine for the soul, in the face of depression, sadness, and hopelessness?
A personal and intimate friendship with Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world!