By Victoria “NIKE” De Dios
While the country is faced with a truly challenging situation in the time of the coronavirus pandemic and other unforeseen circumstances, the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) remained undaunted and stayed focus on finding workable solutions through its various programs and activities that have been addressing health emergencies and sustaining the momentum on the research and development and innovations.
DOST takes pride in how it pivoted and stepped up amidst the pandemic and its different initiatives have never been much sought after on the larger scale of things.
While the situation forces the department to recalibrate some of its research and development (R&D) programs to give way to more pressing concerns in the country such as to efficiently fight against COVID-19. the activities are sustained and issue on other socio-economic concerns using science, technology, and innovation (STI) were not sidelined.
At the onset, DOST led the sub-Technical Working Group on Vaccine Development of the Interagency Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) which, worked on activities related to vaccine development, including the preparations for the phase 3 clinical trials.
The DOST is at the forefront of research and development to assist in the government’s response to the pandemic and is currently involved in the identification, evaluation, and recommendation of possible vaccine candidates for the Philippines.
To ensure access to global vaccine supply, the DOST immediately placed in motion its existing multilateral partnerships with various global organizations in the identification of foreign vaccine developers that would be willing to work with the Task Group and the Philippine government.
Aside from vaccine development, DOST spearheads the World Health Organization’s solidarity trials on vaccines and therapeutics.
Moreover, it supported the development of the first locally-made rt-PCR detection kit called GenAmplify, which is a formidable alternative to imported and expensive COVID-19 detection kits.
Meanwhile, clinical trials on several repurposed drugs, supplements and formulations such as virgin coconut oil, melatonin, lagundi, tawa-tawa, and convalescent plasma as supplementary treatments are being funded and closely being monitored by the DOST to find viable treatment options against COVID-19.
Proving the Filipino ingenuity and staying focus on enhancing innovation capabilities through the various development and innovation programs of the DOST, the Philippines once again jumped up in the ranking in the 2020 Global Innovation Index (GII) by four notches to 50th out of 131 economies.
Hence, technology played an important role in confronting COVID-19 and as result, a number of technology-driven innovations were developed through collaboration with different stakeholders.
The Feasibility Analysis of Syndromic Surveillance using Spatio-Temporal Epidemiological Modeler (FASSSTER) uses a web-based disease modeling and surveillance platform that led to projecting the future course of COVID-19 infections. With its success, other Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and Artificial Intelligence-driven models and applications were supported and deployed such as the Tracing for Allocation of Medical Supplies (TrAMS+) and Telepresence Terminals for COVID-19 Response Team.
On the other hand, the design, development and production of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), medical devices and accessories were initiated in collaboration with various government R&D and higher education institutions and the private sector partners.
Among the technologies and products developed under this scheme were the following: development of locally fabricated ventilators, powered air-purifying respirators; specimen collection booths, GO-CLEAN disinfection chamber, LISA robot, mobile AI-enabled thermal scanners, nanotechnology-enhanced sanitizers, re-useable, washable and re-wearable face masks, 3-D printed venturi valves, ear loop holders, and filter attachment for oxygen concentrator masks.
The proposed establishment of the Virology Science and Technology Institute of the Philippines (VIP) is a big step for the DOST. This initiative will serve as the country’s premier research center in the field of virology, encompassing all areas in viruses and viral diseases in humans, plants, and animals.
Banking on R&D to adopt to new normal
As the search for the COVID-19 vaccine remains, the DOST continues to fund R&D activities through its Grants-In-Aid program on various R&D and basic research in agriculture, aquatic and natural resources, health, industry, alternative energy, and emerging technologies that are consistent with the Harmonized National R&D Agenda.
At the start of 2020, various R&D outputs and scientific services were top priority for the DOST when it launched the Big 20 in 2020.
The Big 20 in 2020 showcases various R&D initiatives that significantly impact the lives of Filipinos particularly in the areas of agriculture, enterprise technology, space science, genomics, mass transportation, development of smart cities, health and nutrition, disaster preparedness, nuclear technology, among others.
To fast track the roll out of quality R&D products in the country, despite the pandemic, the DOST set into motion the Science for Change (S4C) Program that includes the projects Niche Centers in the Regions for R&D (NICER), Collaborative R&D to Leverage PH Economy (CRADLE) and R&D Leadership (RDLead) Program.
In 2020 alone, the DOST approved eight NICER programs in collaboration with 12 higher education institutions (HEIs) with funding support amounting to Php448M. This brings the total number of NICERs approved to this date to 26 which are currently implementing 75 R&D projects in 34 HEIs across the 16 regions in the country. Total funding provided for the program is Php1.1B.
The NICER program further capacitates HEIs in the regions to make significant improvement in regional research by integrating its development needs with the existing R&D capabilities and resources.
On the other hand, the CRADLE program in CY 2020 recorded a total of 38 approved projects with aggregate budget allocation of PhP83.7M. Since the program started, the DOST has approved 63 CRADLE projects across 16 regions with accumulated approved funding of Php285M.
Under the CRADLE program, an industry partner identifies their problems requiring R&D to be performed by the academe or the R&D Institution (RDI). This strategy ensures that R&D provides solutions that exactly meet the unique needs of different industry.
The RD Lead program engaged 18 experts during the year bringing the total to 34 RD Leaders engaged that are now deployed in 32 institutions in 16 regions. The program engages experts with strong leadership and management and innovative policy-making proficiencies to be in charge of strengthening the research capabilities of higher education or R&D institutions.
Mobilizing regional presence
Moreover, DOST, through its regional offices, launched new or revitalized programs in 2020. Among these programs were the Innovations for Filipinos Working Distantly from the Philippines (iFWD PH); Innovation, Science and Technology for Accelerating Regional Technology-Based Development (iSTART); and the Small Enterprise Technology Upgrading Program 4.0.
The iFWD PH program is implemented by the regional offices that aims to provide a package of S&T interventions, enhance the capability of qualified Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) in conceptualizing technology-based businesses and preparing business plans, and assist OFWs in establishing and managing technology-based enterprises.
On 30 October 2020, a total of 59 OFWs successfully graduated from Phase 1 of the program where they were provided with trainings on the development and management of technology-based enterprises. Preparatory sessions for the Phase 2 of the program were also conducted that includes technical consultancies and training-workshop on product development, and process mapping, among others.
On the other hand, the iSTART program seeks to support the balancing of geographical development by accelerating regional growth through science, technology, and innovation. Through the program, DOST will assist the local government units in developing a technology-based development plan for agriculture-based, manufacturing, and services sectors.
Capitalizing on the gains of the Small Enterprise Technology Upgrading Program (SETUP), and considering several factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the DOST regional offices continued to extend assistance to Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) and came up with an upgraded version of the program called SETUP 4.0. This time, the focus is on the industry level to allow different sectors to adopt technologies in a synergistic manner that will fuel economic development by strengthening the MSMEs from the core.
As the tumultuous year ended, the DOST remains at the forefront of engaging Filipinos, resilient as they are, to adopt local technologies and innovations and assures the public in general that they can depend on science to provide the appropriate solutions for most of the country’s concerns.