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Nicanor Austriaco | See Beyond the Molecules

Father Nicanor shares with Jim how his home country, the Philippines, is handling the pandemic as well as what it’s like to be both a Catholic priest and a molecular biologist during these tumultuous times.


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molecule and cross

Father Nicanor shares with Jim how his home country, the Philippines, is handling the pandemic as well as what it’s like to be both a Catholic priest and a molecular biologist during these tumultuous times.

Description

Throughout the pandemic, COVID-19 related news and public thought has often centered around the countries we reside in. Our guest today, Father Nicanor Austriaco, invites us to peer beyond our own situations to see how the rest of the world is dealing with the disease. Father Nicanor shares with Jim how his home country, the Philippines, is handling the tumultuous time as well as what it’s like to be both a Catholic priest and a molecular biologist during a pandemic.

  • Originally aired on September 09, 2021
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Before You Read

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Transcript

Austriaco:

It’s like going into a museum going to the Metropolitan Museum here in New York, for example, you get to see all the paintings, all the artwork, but because I’m a priest, and because I’m a Christian, I know who made them. So you get to see the cells, you get to see the intricate DNA, and you can see all of the molecular parts coming together. And you use science and you use reason to interrogate and penetrate those realities. But you can also see beyond the cells, you can see beyond the molecules and you can see the footprints, the hand of God.

My name is Father Nicanor Austriaco. I’m a professor of biology and professor of theology at Providence College in the United States, as well as professor of biological sciences, and professor of sacred theology at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, the Philippines. 

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump. 

For those of us who live in the United States, our attention throughout this pandemic has primarily been fixed on how COVID cases, vaccinations, and regulations are playing out on the local and national levels.  And this may be appropriate to some degree, as we have obligations for those in our immediate care. But as Christians, we also ought to have a wider view of things, how our actions here affect those around the world. And other countries have had a very different experience of this  pandemic. 

I’m joined today by Father Nicanor Austriaco, who spent time in lockdown in his country of origin — the Philippines — and ended up working with public health officials there to try to manage the pandemic. It’s worthwhile for us to hear how a different culture’s values on freedom and community affect the situation. In addition to his cross-cultural experience, Father Nicanor has doctorates in both theology and biology, making him an interesting person to talk to about science and religion, Catholicism and Protestant Christianity, and a more just way of distributing COVID vaccines around the world.

Let’s get to the conversation.

Interview Part One

Stump:

Father Nicanor, welcome to the podcast. 

Austriaco:

Thank you very much. Thank you for having me on. 

Stump:

It’s good to talk to you again, I think we first met at a BioLogos conference back in the early days, you and a few other Dominican friars and scholars worked on a project called Thomistic Evolution. The claim there wasn’t that St. Thomas Aquinas had stumbled onto evolutionary theory, right?

Austriaco: 

Well, the claim was actually that his philosophical and theological insights, even though 800 years old, could help us to understand better how God created through evolution.

Stump: 

Yes. And there’s a nice website now at thomisticevolution.com. And I think you also did a book by that title, too, didn’t you?

Austriaco: 

Yes, we did that my Dominican collaborators and I put something together, because we had a lot of interest in using our writings for educational purposes. So they wanted something that they could use in class.

Stump: 

Well, perhaps we’ll talk a little bit more about that topic in a bit. But first, I’d like to wind the clock back and get some context a little bit. So as we said, you’re a Dominican priest. And there we don’t mean someone from the Dominican Republic, right? 

Austriaco:

That’s correct. 

Stump:

A member of the Order in the Catholic Church named for St. Dominic. 

Austriaco:

That’s correct. 

Stump:

What do we know about St. Dominic? And how does his life and example inform the Dominican Order today?

Austriaco: 

So this year, the Catholic Church and the Dominican Order is actually celebrating the 800th anniversary of the death of St. Dominic and his entrance into glory. And so he lived in the 13th century. And God raised him up at a time of confusion and theological chaos in the southern part of France, where a movement that actually affirmed the existence of two gods—a good god and an evil god—had risen up: the Albigensian heresy. And so he singularly and then later with a with the help of his brothers preached to restore an account of the goodness of the incarnation, because, you know, the son of man had actually become a human being, and so had acquired a body and that this body was good in a way that the Albigensians had rejected.

Stump:

And so what is this in today’s Catholic life, the order, the Dominican order, what’s distinctive about the Dominicans compared to some of the orders that that others would have heard of? I think, I’m guessing most of our audience is Protestant. So give us a little primer here on the orders and what’s distinctive of the Dominicans.

Nicanor Austriaco:  

So you can think about the Catholic Church, the different religious orders in the Catholic Church are like the different branches of the military in the United States. You’ve got the Navy, and you’ve got the Air Force and you’ve got the Army. And in the Catholic Church, you have different religious orders. And each of these religious orders has a charism. That is a grace that we believe was given by God to the founder or founders of the order that shapes the order’s life and mission for the church. So the real, the ones people know most frequently are one, the monks, so the Benedictine monks, the sons of Saint Benedict. They’re the monks they were raised up nearly 1500 years ago. Then you have the friars and the friars—think of it this way: the monks had a vow of poverty, they promised to wait for God to be found by God in a particular location. And so that’s why you have monasteries. In the 13th century, God raises up the friars and the friars are in a sense monks who don’t have that vow of stability, monks who get to travel, monks who get to move, monks who move around for the sake of the gospel. And so the big two for friars movements are, first of all, the Franciscans. So everyone pretty much knows St. Francis. His, the friars, the Franciscan friars follow Christ who is poor. And then the Dominicans, we are friars. We are friars who follow Christ who is the preacher. And so our charism, and we’ve been known for this, especially since the time of St. Thomas Aquinas, is we’re the geeks. We’re the geeks for God. And after us comes about 300 years later, the Jesuit order in the Society of Jesus, and they, they’re not friars, they’re not monks. They have the flexibility that arises because of the challenges that they have to face in the 16th century. So each one of these religious communities has a mission. Our mission is to preach for the salvation of souls. And we do it with very hard core theological training.

Stump:

So preaching is that what the P stands for in the initials OP?

Austriaco:

That’s correct. So the OP is Latin for ordo predicatorum, which is the order of preachers, and the P is the preaching part.

Stump:

When did you know you wanted to become a priest?

Austriaco:

When did I… Well, I was actually at MIT. And I was finishing up my PhD. And I encountered the risen Lord, it was an encounter that changed my life. And then within a year after that, this would be ‘97, I realized that I wanted to dedicate my life completely to the pursuit of the God who was true and the God who is love. And so I then realized that there was a calling to service in a radical way to the priesthood. And very soon after I encountered the Dominicans, the Lord sent me to them to discover that I’ve been a Dominican all my life, and that the Dominican order in a sense gives formal shape to who I already was.

Stump:

Did you grow up in the Catholic Church?

Austriaco: 

Yeah, I did. But you know, I think like all young people, God was not the priority. In fact, for most of my early life, science was my God, and I pursued science. I wanted to cure cancer and win the Nobel Prize. And that changed when I encountered Christ. You know, he’s alive. And I think that that just changed everything.

Stump: 

Let’s talk a little bit about that conjunction there, though, because so you say you had this encounter when you’re at MIT? And you finished your PhD in biology from there. So it wasn’t as though this calling pulled you away from science necessarily, but somehow— 

Austriaco:

Well, I mean, you know, once I’d encountered the Lord—it was the seventh of May in 1996—and it changed the horizon of my experience. I came to understand that he was the one who had brought me to MIT, he was the one who had called me to learn molecular biology, especially yeast molecular biology. And he was the one who was calling me to put that into service of the gospel and the truth, right? So it just changes the horizon from which you live. And it provides purpose and meaning in a way I’d not understood before that.

Stump:

So one of the things we often talk about at BioLogos is this influence between science and faith and in which direction that influence flows. So you’re touching on that right now. And I think it’s a really interesting question to put to you, since you’re professionally trained in both these fields. But say a little bit more, if you would, about how you’ve said a little there about how being a priest influences your work as a scientist, expand on that, maybe, but then also talk about this other direction. How does being a scientist influence your work as a priest too?

Austriaco:

That’s a very, that’s a wonderful question actually. So I discovered and I have experienced the truth, that both faith and reason are from God. So I think once you understand that, my scientific, my passion for science and my even greater passion for Christ come from and lead me to the same source. You know, they come from the word and they draw me back in. You discover that there cannot be a conflict between the two. So the assumption, actually, you have to start off with a working principle. And the working principle here is, regardless of what the world says, especially the world in the West, there is no conflict between science and religion. So, if you start off that way, you affirm that because both faith and science come from God and call us back to him, then what you can do is that you can begin to sort things out, and to think things through simply knowing that they cannot conflict, and that any apparent conflict, one is apparent, and two require simply a lot of prayer and a lot of thinking. And it may not, the reconciliation may not come about tomorrow. But it is a challenge to continue thinking through that potential conflict in order to find a solution that feeds the soul, that actually allows you to see the world as God sees it. And that’s been so life giving for me, especially as a Dominican. So the sign, you know, when people ask me, I was just in Germany last week, and I had students ask me, how does my being a Christian, how does me being a priest impact my science? And I said, it’s like going into a museum going to the Metropolitan Museum here in New York, for example. You get to see all the paintings, all the artwork, but because I’m a priest and because I’m a Christian, I know who made them. So you get to see the cells, you get to see the intricate DNA, and you can see all of the molecular parts coming together. And you use science and you use reason to interrogate and penetrate those realities. But you can also see beyond the cells, you can see beyond the molecules and you can see the footprints, the hand of God, and that’s really been incredible. It’s not that science merges with religion, it’s not like there’s like a mush. They each have… it’s like music and math. Right? So music is math. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to do calculus when I’m playing my flute, for example. So there’s a radical independence, but a dependence of sorts as well.

Stump: 

So we Protestants who are in this area of science and religion sometimes seem to think that we invented that field of study. And I think there are certainly distinctly Protestant issues that come up often related to our view of Scripture and what we can or can’t take from it with respect to science. But the Catholic engagement with science has been going on a lot longer. Could you speak to this a little bit, maybe what are some of the distinctly Catholic issues in science and religion? Or distinctly Catholic approaches to this intersection of these two different disciplines? 

Austriaco:  

Well, I mean, the Catholic church, you know, traces her history to the earliest apostles. And so you can look at that engagement. And you can see, for example, even St. Augustine beginning to understand, you know, beginning to ask the questions about how you interpret scripture in light of experience. Now, what my evangelical friends, you know, especially those at MIT, I mean, when we sit down, and we talk, what’s really striking is that the evangelical emphasis on sola scriptura, where scripture for some can be interpreted on its own merits. And becomes in a sense, the benchmark for all other knowledge can be challenging for someone who’s trying to integrate faith in science. So, for Catholic Christians, on the other hand, there’s a view again, like I pointed out, since since faith and reason come together, even the interpretation of Scripture is both an act of faith and reason. And so, reason as in the capacity of the human intellect to understand truth, can also be applied to the understanding of Sacred Scripture as a product of God working through human authors. So one of the things I think that’s really important to understand is when I talk about evangelical friends, when we talk about sacred scripture, for many Protestants, there’s such an emphasis on the divine authorship of sacred scripture, that they don’t appreciate how for Catholics, God worked through human authors in the way that an author writes through and with a pen. And so if you want to understand the writing, you have to understand the pen as well. And so for Catholic exegetes and for Catholic theologians, it’s okay to apply the tools of human inquiry with regards to say, literature and history, to the sacred text, because the sacred text, the Holy Scriptures is God working and respecting the freedom of human authors. So we have to understand how these human authors wrote, what were the cultural and social and sometimes personal influences that God used to convey the truth that he wished to convey in His revelation. So it’s a lot more sophisticated than some of my evangelical friends tend to appreciate. And of course, because the Catholic Church has an ecclesial authority that is able to distinguish between apparently opposing interpretations of sacred scripture, we don’t end up having the kind of battles that some of my evangelical friends have where it seems like it’s an impasse. Right? So you’re not quite sure what to say about Genesis 2 or 3 because there’s no one with authority to actually say it. And I think that’s a challenge for my Protestant friends.

Stump:

I think you’re right, is there a flip side of that coin at all, are there any issues that Catholicism or the magisterium of the church and the ecclesial structure make more difficult?

Austriaco:

Well, I think what, I mean what ends up happening is, I think, for Catholic theologians, if the magisterium has not yet spoken on a particular issue, you just have to be patient, right? So I work in bioethics, I work in a lot of the impact of medicine and ethics. And, for example, embryo adoption is a very hot question now. Whether or not a Catholic who seeks to live a virtuous life can adopt a frozen embryo that has been abandoned by his parents, and then what would you do with that? So what you’re seeing in this particular theological question and answer, because there are two sides to that theological question, is that the Catholic theologians are an impasse because they’re actually two different moral principles that can be used to answer that question. And it’s not clear which one has priority. When you have that kind of situation, there is a genuine pause in the theological inquiry, we simply have to pray more and just wait. You don’t see that amongst my Protestant friends, and sometimes it can get quite dirty, messy, as they duke it out.

Stump: 

We have a history of duking things out, that’s for sure. I want to talk some of these bioethical concerns that you’ve worked on here in a little bit. But before that, while we’re still talking Catholicism and science, can you give just a little overview of your Thomistic Evolution project, because I think this is really important that a lot of people at BioLogos became interested in these topics through evolution, and maybe just share a couple of insights that come from St. Thomas, that you think help to frame our understanding of evolution in regard to our theology.

Austriaco:

So thank you for that question. I referred to a principle already. So St. Thomas 800 years ago, articulated, in many ways, a principle that had been used prior to him, but he articulated in such a clear way, this view of instrumental causality. So he asked this question, how does one agent use another and so he explained instrumental causality. I use the image of an author with a pen writing a thank you note where the handwriting of the note is due to the author but, but the color of the note the ink is due to the pen and there’s a radical cooperation between these two causes. The primary cause, the author, and the instrumental cause, the pen. We don’t see it as the author fighting the pen or the, or the pen fighting the author they’re working together. And I think that that image of instrumental causality is really important to hold, when you understand that this is how God creates through evolution. So what you see in many Protestant circles is there’s this apparent conflict between creation and evolution. So there’s this view that either God created, and what we see here is we’re talking about like a young, an account of young earth creationism, or things evolved. And for the Catholic tradition, because we have access to these philosophical tools, in the toolkit that is 2000 years old, we can talk about how God created through evolution, he creates through material causes, he creates through material forces, in a way that genuinely maintains his integrity as a cause. So he is God fully acting through creation, but creation too has a chance to participate in this process of generating novelty. And so notions that creation and evolution are opposed don’t have to be that way, we can just say, “look, he created through evolution.” And that’s one of the ways that when I say that a lot of my students go, wow, that seems like that’s a really interesting way of putting it. 

The same thing with design and chance. So, St. Thomas Aquinas will provide an account for divine providence, where chance is part of providence. In fact, he will say that chance is only chance because God made it so and so there is no tension between design and chance. Because based on a philosophical account, again, provided for by Aquinas, we can say that God designed through chance. And it’s authentic chance, it’s real chance. But it’s actually a manifestation of God’s creative will, it is part of God’s design, that it be chance. And so you can say the same thing with us who are free. God makes us free. And coming to terms with this is very hard. I think for most people, you know, they tend to see it as either God’s in control, or I’m in control. And again, with this account of instrumental causality, we can begin to see that, in fact, the only reason why the pen is a pen, is because the author is using it. It is most pen when the author is writing with it. We are most human when God is working with and through us. And so we are most free, when we cooperate with God. This is very difficult, I think, for a lot of people to grasp, especially in the West, where accounts of freedom tend to be radically libertarian. So you’re free only if no one else has anything to do or say with what you’re up to. And the Catholic, well, not even the Catholic, but the philosophical framework provided by Aquinas allows us to approach that question and to articulate and to resolve those apparent tensions.

Stump:

Yeah, do you need to give an account also there, which you pointed to earlier about the kind of independence of the disciplines that are inquiring into these different aspects of reality, in some sense? In the sense that if the scientist is looking at the details of evolutionary theory, does that scientist need to have an account of God working through those details in order to do their science correctly? Or do those stand fairly well on their own, and it’s just you as a person of faith and of science, that can speak both of those languages that can bring them together in a way that’s incomplete without them? I guess what I’m trying to ask is, can I have a complete account of the science just from the science itself on this view? Or do you need to supplement it with the theological perspective?

Austriaco:

So I would respond to that in this way, you can have a complete account of science with science, but you can only have a complete account of reality, when science is coupled with all of the other modes of knowledge. You know, so, it’s just like saying, again, going back to my example of music and math, right. A musician does not have to be a mathematician. But for those who are aware of the mathematical patterns of music, in a sense, you have a deeper appreciation of how it fits together. And I think that’s the same thing. My grandmother was neither a scientist nor a theologian, but because she was a Christian, and she lived a deeply, profoundly prayerful, I would even say mystical life. She had a better knowledge of the reality of the world than I still do.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hey listeners. I’m just here with a quick plug for the BioLogos forum, a place filled with active discussions about many of the topics covered in this podcast. In fact, each episode of the podcast has a specific thread where you can discuss what you’ve heard. The forum is a place where questions are welcome and where conversation is civil and gracious, even when topics are controversial. Bring your questions or share your story with a community filled with experts and other curious learners from a variety of viewpoints.You can find a link to the forum at the top of any page on the BioLogos website, biologos.org.

Interview Part Two

Stump: 

Well, very good. Let’s shift gears a little bit here. Tell us some about the scientific work that you’re doing at Providence College. Has your lab been able to cure cancer yet? How are we doing in that pursuit?

Austriaco: 

I was trained as a yeast molecular biologist at MIT. And so for the last 15 years, until COVID, my lab really focused on using yeast as a model system to interrogate questions in molecular biology that were raised by cancer or more recently by Parkinson’s disease. And so what I mean by that is that it’s often very expensive and time consuming to do research with humans and with human cells. So what you can do is you can use yeast cells, which, again, because of their common origin, common evolutionary origin, share a lot of parts and share a lot of the functions of human cells. We can use that to study, we can use that as a proxy to study cancer and Parkinson’s and my students in the last few years, had been using yeast. We’ve been looking for small molecule inhibitors, new chemotherapeutic agents that would counteract the activity of a cancer gene, an oncogene, that is turned on in an abnormal way, in several kinds of tumors. 

Now, in the past year, though, because of COVID, my students and I have pivoted our work. So we are currently developing a yeast vaccine delivery system for COVID-19. So in January, we took a probiotic yeast, called Saccharomyces boulardii, which is already FDA approved for human consumption, and we genetically engineered that yeast so that it would secrete a fragment of the SARS CoV-2 spike protein. And in fact, beginning next week, that vaccine candidate will begin animal trials in the Philippines with mice. And what we would like to do is we would like to see whether or not that vaccine candidate triggers an immune response in those mice. If it does, we then graduate to monkeys. And then from monkeys, we would apply to the Philippine government for permission to begin clinical trials with human patients. Our goal is to produce a relatively inexpensive, so we’re hoping like $1 or $2 a pop instead of the, you know, tens, if not hundreds of dollars for some of these really, really cutting edge vaccines that will be, that are currently pandemic price but are expected to—let’s just say, there’s going to be a jacking up of the price after the pandemic is declared over. We also want one that is shelf stable, because many of these vaccines require an ultra cold chain, they require refrigeration and only 44% of Filipino families own a refrigerator. So there’s this challenge of what are you going to do. And finally, you know, if we make, if this is successful, if God blesses our work, then this will be an oral vaccine where you can just take the yeast, dump it in a glass of water and then chug the glass. And the idea here is that you don’t need doctors, you don’t need nurses, you don’t need syringes, you don’t have to go to the hospital. We would be able to package this yeast into like little sachets, mail them off. They’d be shelf stable in your kitchen for two years. And then once a year or once every six months, you just like tear one open, pour into a glass of water, and chug it. So this will be incredibly beneficial for a developing and resource poor country like my homeland and the Philippines.

Stump:

I’d like to hear a little bit more about that. So much of our news related to COVID is the people right immediately around us in our own country and what’s going on there. I think we have often lost track of some of these developing countries and how dire things have been so you said your own ancestry is Filipino. Were you born in the Philippines?

Austriaco: 

Yep, I was born in the Philippines. I came here to go to college and God kept me here. And I, you know, I became a Dominican here but my family’s still back home, my mom is still back in the capital, Manila. So last year, I was scheduled to go on sabbatical. So I went on sabbatical and the Philippines got stuck there for lockdown, and ended up becoming part of an independent data analysis team that assists both the national government and local government units, in terms of pandemic management. So in a way that I had not done before, my undergraduate degree is in engineering from the University of Pennsylvania where I did a lot of modeling. So what ended up happening is, over the past year, I had to resurrect a lot of my programming skills, develop computer models for understanding and forecasting and predicting the pandemic in the Philippines. And I’ve been helping there. And I’m part of a team pretty much like the foremost data analysis team in the country.

Stump:

Give us a little snapshot of the situation there in the Philippines in terms of caseload and vaccines. And what are what’s the situation that you find on the ground there?

Austriaco:  

So I think what I’m going to do is I’m just going to highlight some of the unique challenges that the Philippines has to kind of illustrate how a developing country will face and respond to the pandemic in ways that I think most Americans don’t appreciate. So first of all, I mentioned earlier, only 44% of Philippine families own a refrigerator. So it’s particularly challenging to go into lockdown, especially a lockdown for several months, because you can’t store anything. And so what ends up happening is that, you know, every week, sacks of rice and canned goods have to be delivered to many, many families during lockdown. Second thing in the Philippines is we don’t have nursing homes. Our senior citizens, our grandparents live with our families. So 67-68% of Filipino families are intergenerational. And this is a unique challenge during a pandemic, because here in the US, what would happen is they simply, in a sense, completely isolated and cordoned off nursing homes. Well, you can’t do that in the Philippines, because our senior citizens are living at home. So two things happen that I think Americans just find it unthinkable. First of all, we asked our grandparents not to leave their homes. So my mother did not leave our house for 14 months until she went to get her first shot. She could not leave the house. So if you were 60 or above, and you were at high risk for COVID, you couldn’t leave. We also asked our children not to leave because if they left and got sick, they’d bring it home and infect mom and grandma and grandpa. So children younger than 17 years old have not left their homes in the last 18 months. We’ve stayed at home. We’ve not had, we’ve not been able to have face to face education because we just couldn’t take that risk. So what you’ve had is the only people leaving their homes have been working those who are working from 18 to 60 or so. So it changes radically. The nature of a lockdown, right? So like I said, everyone stayed at home. And for months for a year plus they couldn’t come out. They couldn’t go for a run. They couldn’t just go for a walk. Those are not allowed. And again, when it appears so drastic and the reason is because we don’t have as many hospitals and birth and beds. So in the capital city of Metro Manila of 14 million people, we only have—I know this because this is part of my work— about 9400 COVID beds total and about 900 ICU COVID beds total, for an entire 14 million people. That’d be the equivalent for all of New York City. Basically you just have like 9000 beds of the equivalent of a couple of the hospitals here. So it became very challenging.

We have had to go into, we’ve had three hard lockdowns. In fact, the Philippines, the National Capital Region of the Philippines is currently in lockdown because we are responding to a Delta threat. We have a huge surge and we don’t have the capacity that the United States has with regard to vaccines. Well, most Americans are not aware that many countries in the West including the United States hoarded vaccines. So, you know, for the first six months of this year, the United States had reportedly nearly 100 million AstraZeneca doses in frozen storage in Ohio. No American has still been vaccinated with AstraZeneca. You know, so there was 100 million doses of AstraZeneca and the US government was simply waiting on it just in case. It never happened, we’ve never had to use it in this country, that those 10s of millions of doses could have really benefited many, many countries throughout the world. Same thing with Moderna and Pfizer, and Johnson and Johnson, the US reserved doses, but it reserved the equivalent sometimes of like eight doses per citizen. And everyone knows you only need two, but they reserve so many just in case, right. And so what ends up happening here is that the Philippines could only begin vaccinating in earnest actually, in the last two months, once the United States declared its vaccination campaign to be pretty much done, that happened on the Fourth of July. And so when President Biden pretty much, you know, declared that the vaccine campaign was pretty much done. It was, you know, anyone could go and get it. Only then were a lot of the vaccines released to the rest of the world. So here in the US, we vaccinated fully 150 million, about half of our population. In the Philippines, we vaccinated fully I believe, as of this morning, something of the order of 11 million people. And when we get vaccines when vaccines arrive, like this morning, 500,000 doses of Pfizer arrived in the Philippines. When the plane is landing that’s on television, you get to see the plane land, the vaccines are unloaded. And within a week, all of those vaccines are jabbed. We don’t have the… which is frustrating because I’m currently in New York and I can walk down to a CVS and walk in and I know that there’s a large supply of unused vaccines back there, especially since so many, you know, we have we’re facing vaccine hesitancy in this country that is quite unprecedented. We don’t have that challenge in the Philippines. We have hundreds of thousands on the waiting list. They die for one of the vaccines that we have here at CVS.

Stump:

There’s, I understand, though a different sort of controversy brewing there, particularly with some of the work you and your group have been doing, that’s more political than scientific. How is that going right now?

Austriaco:

Yeah. So a week ago, I discovered that I was subject to an official congressional probe, the house of representatives of the Philippines. It’s political, it’s deeply political. As an independent data analysis group, we’ve been providing weekly updates on the state of the pandemic in the country. And on the 28th of July, our forecasting, I’m responsible for the hospital forecasting, I get to keep track of what the hospitals will look like, in a couple of weeks. We were able to see because of our forecasting, that the surge that was only just beginning on the 28th would overrun and overwhelm our hospitals by the middle or end of August. So we actually called for a circuit breaker lockdown. And that was deeply controversial. Now, the government modelers actually corroborated our data about five days later, and the Philippines entered into an emergency lockdown of the entire capital region and the surrounding areas last Friday, it’s scheduled for two weeks. But in that process, we got called into the Congress. I think a lot of people, you know, they just—it’s a lot of power, I think. I mean, it’s a lot of power, to be able to use your science and to say, “look, guys, if we don’t shut down now, we’re going to have Filipinos dying on the street in a month.” And I think a lot of Congress, many of our representatives just want to understand how we can actually do what in their eyes is sometimes magical. We also have elections coming up. So we have elections in the Philippines every six years, and it’s coming up in May of 2022. And so there’s a lot of posturing. There’s a lot of, there’s just a lot of positioning of people and my research team and I have been caught in the crosshairs of the political drama.

Stump:

How representative is the Philippines for other developing countries with regard to the situations you’ve just been describing there with lock downs and the necessity of keeping people at home. And what this does even to economic kinds of situations, do you know, the broader picture around the world and how representative that is?

Austriaco: 

So it’s actually representative of most developing countries. So I can speak, especially for the countries in Southeast Asia, because we often use our neighbors as barometers for our success or failures. And pretty much every country in Southeast Asia is going through the same kind of situation. Many countries in Asia and in Africa, simply don’t have the medical infrastructure that the United States has. They also don’t have the wealth of resources that we have here. And so when you have people basically flocking to the hospitals by the hundreds, very quickly, within a week, your hospitals are log-jammed, and everything crashes down, and people start dying in the streets. And that’s what you’re seeing throughout the world. I think a lot of Americans and some Westerners, as in people in Western Europe, Europeans, they don’t deeply appreciate how this pandemic has been such a different experience in poor countries.

Stump:

What can we do about that, Nicanor?

Austriaco:

Well, one, you know, first, we have to pray. I’m a believer. So we have to pray. We have to pray. Second, we have to do our part. And I think this is so important. In the Philippines, when all the adults in a home have been vaccinated, the house receives a sticker on their door, it basically announces to the world that everyone in this house has been vaccinated, that they’re protected. But it’s also a sign of thanksgiving for their service to the country and for the people. And there’s a deep sense of solidarity and unity. We are, the Filipino people are getting vaccinated for each other. And so it’s a strongly collectivist culture, I have to be… the family is foremost. And, you know, everyone thinks about family and we’re talking about family in the extended sense. We’re getting vaccinated for family. And I think for Filipinos, it’s incomprehensible when we see the kind of protests in the US where people are talking about, “well, I’m not getting vaccinated just because I don’t want to.” And I think there is a concern that the individualism in this country has actually morphed into a deep social isolation where the immediate response to a call to common good is one of selfishness and rejection of that. 

And yeah, you know, I tell people, it’s okay to be scared, because these vaccines are new. But we understand them. And now there have been close to 4 billion doses administered, they have been administered to more human beings than any other vaccine, which means that from a scientific perspective, we really understand in a way we don’t understand, for example, yellow fever vaccine, these vaccines. But I think that for Filipinos, they just don’t approve. They don’t understand the American individualism that so thinks of itself as an island in the middle of an ocean. We are getting vaccinated for it for the country, for our families, for the people, right? For the Filipino people. We’re trying to get vaccinated so we can get out of this crisis and return to our normal lives. And so I ask Americans, you know, the difficulty with unvaccinated people, people who are not vaccinated or even worse, people who’ve been only vaccinated once is that, you know, they’ll say, “well, I’m only gonna get sick, I’ll be fine.” But what actually happens is, every COVID positive patient is a potential source for a new variant. So what ends up happening is that if we don’t vaccinate people, and we allow infections to percolate, even though peoples don’t get, they don’t die, one of two things happen, one is they could get long COVID which is debilitating and to they could generate a variant that actually goes around these vaccines and puts us back at square one. So I guess I would ask the Americans, let us, especially as Christians, we are all part of one family. And we do things for family that are scary. Yes, there’s fear, but we look for love. And I’m calling here for a deep sense of fraternal love, where we can look at each other, even those with whom we disagree, as profoundly as brothers and sisters in the Lord. And that we would do things for our brothers and sisters. And so one of the things the Filipino would ask the American is, can you get vaccinated for all of us, please? Not just for yourself.

Stump:

You hold a mirror up to us that gives a reflection that’s not very flattering, I’m afraid. And of course, we at BioLogos have been pushing for this as well. Unfortunately, the church in America has not been as homogeneous in their support of these kinds of things. But we keep trying.

Austriaco:

And that’s what we can always do, right? We can pray for grace, we can pray for the charity that only God can give, that allows us to transcend our tendencies to look only at ourselves and the people who are immediately around us. And that’s basically what I think the Filipino people would ask the American people. Let’s all do this together. Because we all—none, we are not… And I think this is part of the challenge, I can see this when I returned to the United States, there are people who think the pandemic is over. It’s not. And if and if we think it’s over, it will just come back and bite us in the butt, as my students will say. Because a new variant will show up, and a new variant will show up that will make all these vaccines useless. And we’ll be back to square one. And it will be because we were not vaccinating enough right now with the vaccines that do work right now. And so, you know, the church, so we, I’ve been privy to the ecumenical discussion in the Philippines. So the Catholic Church is most prevalent, so about 80-85% of Filipinos are Catholic Christians. But we have brothers and sisters who belong to many other ecclesial groups as well. And there is a uniformity there, the the Christian community in the Philippines, along with our Muslim brothers and sisters, in the one God have come together and said, “look, vaccines are a gift. These vaccines are a gift from God.” How else could they not be? They save lives. And we have to be grateful for them. And we need to use them reasonably and prudentially to help each other get past this incredible crisis.

Stump:

And from your scientific perspective, are there any concerns with the safety of these long term, particularly as we’re, you know, we hear quite often that this was a very, very fast process. But as you’ve looked at it, that kind of research, is there anything that’s worrying?

Austriaco:

Well, first of all, I have to highlight why it was fast. So say you’re developing a vaccine against Ebola, there are two challenges you face. One is lack of funding. And two, you need to wait for an Ebola epidemic, because you have to test it. So there are people who take five years to get the money to make the Ebola vaccine, and then they wait another five years until there’s an Ebola outbreak somewhere in Africa. They rush over there and they vaccinate the entire village. That was not the case with the vaccine development for COVID-19. Why? Because there was unlimited sources of cash from countries and governments that were desperate to get out of the economic doldrums that the lockdowns put us in. And you didn’t have to wait for an outbreak, you just stepped outside your lab and boom, there it was. And so we were able, so in a way that people don’t appreciate, these clinical trials for these vaccines were much larger than many of the clinical trials used for many of the other vaccines simply because we had so many more people who are potential candidates. You know, I mean, all you had to do was go to New York, and there were millions of people who were willing to be vaccinated because there was a threat around them. So I think it’s important that just because it’s fast, doesn’t mean there were shortcuts. I think a lot of people think that because it was fast, there had to have been shortcuts; that is not the case. 

Second, we’ve known about mRNA for 50 some years, and these mRNA vaccines have been in development for at least a decade. And yes, we’ve not made a human vaccine out of them because there just was no in a sense, opportunity or occasion for one. But we know enough about the mRNA vaccines we know about mRNA. So will there be long term? So one of the memes that is going on around social media right now is that these mRNA vaccines are time bombs, and everyone that has been vaccinated with Pfizer and Moderna is going to be dead two years from now we’re just gonna be one day, we’re all just gonna wake up and billions will die. And there is no biological reason at all for us to think that this would happen. I’ve had people ask me about, you know, where exactly is the biochip that was implanted in me? And, you know, I point out to them, so one of the things I said is okay, they’re absolutely convinced that they have a chip. And then I said, “well, where’s the battery?” That pauses, like, oh, I have no idea. And then, so they go off and do research. And they come back to me, and they say, “well, you know, actually, Father, we found out during the super secret batteries that are charged by the beating of your heart.” And you see, at that point, you realize I can’t say anything. Because the conspiracy is so wild, the conspiracy, so I told, and they said, “you know, I don’t want to get vaccinated because they’re going to be able to track me.” I said, “wait, do you have a cell phone?” I said, “they’re able to track you now. They’re able to figure out what you’re saying, now. You have no problems without that.” So is there a risk, yeah there’s always a risk. How large is that risk? It’s incredibly small. AstraZeneca, Johnson and Johnson, the blood clot risk, I believe is something like one and a quarter million. And I point out that the risk for getting hit by lightning is one in 15,000. And if you have no problems walking outside on a rainy day, because you don’t think that the risk is great enough for you to worry about being hit by lightning. Then that same reasoning should allow you to say, “okay, I should not really be unduly worried about the vaccines.”

Stump:

And compare that to the risk of COVID.

Austriaco: 

Exactly. With getting COVID itself, especially now with the Delta variant, especially now where a lot of people are getting sicker than they would have been, say even a year ago.

Stump:

Well, I pray that your yeast vaccine will yield positive results here. How soon will you know if that’s going to be an effective way to combat this? 

Austriaco: 

Well, I mean, you plan and then God laughs. We were hoping that our mice trials will be done by the beginning of the fourth quarter of this year. Again, you know, our science is impacted by the pandemic, because when we go into lockdown, it’s harder for us to do the experiments. But hopefully, by the end of this year, we will have an inkling as to whether or not it triggers an immune response, then, moving forward, we’d have to figure out how to get it tested in monkeys, and then the human clinical trials. So maybe middle of next year. It’s a second generation vaccine. In other words, it’s not meant to replace the Pfizer and Moderna right now. But if what we’re expecting to be true, which is we are supposed to be vaccinated every year, every other year, then this will be in a sense the booster shots from now till the Lord returns, right?

Stump:

Well, in your modeling and projections, are you able to see clearly enough yet how much longer we have to go with this?

Austriaco:

Well, I only work with the Philippines. But we’re hoping that by Christmas, we will reach herd immunity in the capital, that’s actually a reasonable target, which would allow us to return to somewhat of a normal, you know, return back to the old normal by Christmas. And again, we don’t have the kind of vaccine hesitancy and the politicized vaccine ideology that you have here. So we’re hoping to reach herd immunity for the country by the middle of next year. So again, this, we don’t know what God knows. And this is again, predicated on no new variants that arise in unvaccinated populations that are able to escape the protection that the vaccines give us at this time.

Stump: 

And I’d like to honor some of the Filipinos whose lives have been lost in this process of attempting to acquire herd immunity. Do you know approximately how many that is?

Austriaco:

I can look it up right now. So give me a second. Because it changes every day, as you know. So first of all, you know, we should keep in mind that there have been 200, over 200 million people with COVID in the world. 4.3 million have died and this is surely under-reported. In the Philippines, so currently we have 1.7 million cases. And we have 29,000 deaths. Now again, keep that in mind, so the Philippines is a third the size of the United States. We have 30,000 deaths. And the United States currently has 600,000 deaths, which is striking because the US has had, is so much richer and so many more resources to combat this. And that’s why it’s so tragic.

Stump:

Well, it sounds like your work has been successful, if we can use those terms for 30,000 people dying, but it’s certainly better than the alternative.

Austriaco: 

Well, it’s service to the Lord and to the Filipino people.

Stump:

Well, Nicanor, I hope, I pray, next time we talk that the news around the world will be cheerier and thank you so much for your work on that behalf. 

Austriaco:

Thank you again for inviting me. 

Stump:

Yeah, thank you for your witness to the rest of us here.

Austriaco:

Despite all of this, remember, I’ve said this, you know this, despite everything, Christ is alive.

Stump: 

Amen. Thank you, Nicanor.

Austriaco:

You’re welcome. God bless you. Bye.

Credits

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation, the Fetzer Institute and by individual donors who contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. 

BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the Grand River watershed on the ancestral land of the Anishinaabe people.

If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum or visit our website, biologos.org, where you will find articles, videos and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening. 


Featured guest

Rev. Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco, OP Headshot

Rev. Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco, OP

Rev. Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco, O.P., currently serves as a Professor of Biology and of Theology at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island. He received his Ph.D. in Biology from M.I.T. where he was a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) fellow in the laboratory of Prof. Leonard Guarente. Fr. Austriaco also completed a Pontifical Doctorate in Sacred Theology (S.T.D.) at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. His NIH-funded laboratory at Providence College is investigating the genetic regulation of programmed cell death using the yeasts, Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Candida albicans, as model organisms. His first book, Biomedicine and Beatitude: An Introduction to Catholic Bioethics, was published by the Catholic University of America Press.