Rev. Nicanor Austriaco (right), an MIT-trained molecular biologist specialising in bio-engineering, has been offered the top health job by Philippine President Duterte on Monday night. It's not clear if the offer was a firm one. The prelate, part of a Philippine advisory group on COVID-19, declined the offer. Image Credit: Gulf News / Supplied

Manila: A Filipino-American priest who is also developing a COVID vaccine has been offered the top health job by President Rodrigo Duterte. It was not immediately clear if the offer was firm or in jest. as the Philippines strongman has expressed disdain for some churchmen, and even Pope Francis.

Fr. Nicanor Ausriaco Jr., trained as a molecular biologist who also runs a medical research laboratory in the US, has been eyed by the Philippine strongman to replace Department of Health (DOH) Secretary Francisco Duque Jr.

Austriaco is an fellow of OCTA Research, an independent experts’ group studying the COVID-19 pandemic and advising the Philippine government.

The job was offered “if he wants the post”, Duterte said during his weekly “Talk to the People” that aired late Monday night.

In the past, the Philippine strongman has expressed disdain for some churchmen, including Pope Francis, though he claims he's a changed man and learnt to tame his tongue

On Monday, Fr. Austriaco made a presentation on the Omicron COVID-19 variant, and gave recommendations on how to prepare for it. It was then that Duterte asked him if he was open to accepting the job.

“I would be happy to appoint you as Secretary of Health, if that is okay with you,” Duterte said.

Offer declined

Austriaco declined the offer, saying he would rather have Dr. Duque stay in his post. “No, sir. Secretary Duque is doing a fine job,” the OCTA fellow said.

Duterte pressed on with his offer, saying Duque would be happy to be replaced. “He has shown a desire to really…to rest after all this ruckus,” Duterte told Austriaco. “I’ve been forcing him to stay, but he would be happy to give way to you, I’m sure.”

Duque agreed, saying: “Yes, Mr. President.”

Rev. Austriaco, 52, became a Dominican priest and earned his doctorate degree in yeast molecular biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston. Austriaco is also part of the team developing what would be the first Filipino-made COVID-19 vaccine. His COVID-19 shot is currently in pre-clinical development in the US.

A license to conduct clinical trials will be sought in the Philippines after “mouse work” (test on animals). He currently consults with the Manila government on the coronavirus pandemic response.

He currently runs his own research lab (Austriaco Labs), based in Rhode Island. As a molecular biologist, Austriaco’s specialisation is "programmed yeast cell death”. He says his planned COVID jab can be orally taken.

He earlier told Gulf News that he would open a COVID-19 vaccine research lab at the University of Santo Tomas (UST) in Manila, Philippines.