President Rodrigo Duterte, visibly in a light mood, has said he would be "happy" to appoint Filipino-American molecular biologist and Catholic priest Fr. Nicanor Austriaco Jr. as the head of the Department of Health.
"We would be happy, I would be happy to appoint you as the Secretar of Health, if that is okay with you," Duterte told Austriaco during a taped meeting Monday which the latter attended virtually.
Duterte said Health Secretary Francisco Duque III "vents a desire really to rest, you know, after all this ruckus against him."
"I’ve been forcing him (Duque) to stay but he would be happy to give way to you, I’m sure," added the President.
Duque, who was present in the meeting, replied, "Yes, Mr. President, to another Thomasian," referring to his fellow alumnus of the University of Santo Tomas (UST).
Reacting to Duterte's offer of heading the DOH, Austriaco said, "No sir. No sir. Secretary Duque is doing a fine job po and he’s a Thomasian sir."
The Philippine-born Austriaco, who grew up in Thailand and Malaysia, is a Doctor of Sacred Theology from the University of Fribourg and a Doctor of Philosophy in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Duterte previously refused to sack Duque despite repeated calls to step down from his post since last year over the country's management of the COVID-19 crisis and the P15-billion corruption allegation against medical state insurer PhilHealth that the DOH chief chairs.
Austriaco is at present a professor of biology and professor of theology at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and a research fellow at the Center for Theology, Religious Studies, and Ethics, at UST.
Austriaco attended the University of Pennsylvania where he earned a Bachelor of Science in Engineering, summa cum laude, in 1989.
In August, Duque said he was prepared to resign "if the time comes" but added he must first clear his agency of P67-billion fund use deficiencies flagged by the Commission on Audit.
Austriaco is also a fellow of the Manila-based OCTA Research Group andsplits his time between the Philippines and the US. He is working on a cheaper oral COVID-19 vaccine for the Philippines with his students at UST.
Austriaco gave his inputs about the Omicron variant of COVID-19 during the meeting presided over by Duterte.
In a televised public briefing Tuesday, Duque said: "We serve at the pleasure of the President, so (that's) the President’s call."
Nearly 38.7 million people have been fully vaccinated againstCOVID-19, as of Monday, according to official data monitored by the ABS-CBN Investigative and Research Group.