War against coronavirus: Asean and India's search for a Covid-19 vaccine

  • India
  • Saturday, 06 Jun 2020

In laboratories around the region, Asia's best minds have come together in a race to find a vaccine to halt the spread of Covid-19. The common goal has birthed partnerships among some of the world's largest pharmaceutical players, as well as cooperation between nations. The Straits Times correspondents find out how three Asean countries (Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia) and India are faring in this crucial effort to end the pandemic.

Singapore boosting capacity for fast Covid-19 vaccine production

SINGAPORE is building up vaccine manufacturing capacity so production can be ramped up quickly and safely once a Covid-19 vaccine is found.

It will offer fill-and-finish contract manufacturing services to vaccine developers, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at yesterday's virtual Global Vaccine Summit.

Fill-and-finish manufacturing involves contamination-free filling of drugs into containers such as vials or syringes. It plays a critical role in scaling up vaccine production for populations as many biopharmaceutical products are fragile and prone to contamination.

"This should help them ramp up production faster, and assure them of high standards of safety and quality in the manufacturing process," PM Lee noted.

Firms producing drugs and vaccines sometimes outsource part of the process to other companies, known as contract development and manufacturing organisations.

They work on a contractual basis to produce the various ingredients or to "package" the final product before it is ready for patient use.

Lee added that Singapore is investing heavily in research and development on diagnostics, vaccines and therapeutics for the coronavirus, and that local researchers have developed a range of diagnostic tests that have been deployed in around 20 countries.

They are also developing therapies and a vaccine, and testing various treatments on patients.

Biomedical manufacturing a bright spot for Singapore

Singapore's investments in biomedical sciences have paid off during the Covid-19 pandemic, with the biomedical manufacturing sector remaining a bright spot in a sluggish economy.

"The demand for healthcare products has not been affected and is generally quite resilient," said Ms Goh Wan Yee, senior vice-president of healthcare at the Economic Development Board (EDB).

EDB data out last month showed that biomedical manufacturing was the main bright spot in Singapore's factory production for April.

British giant GlaxoSmithKline's (GSK) manufacturing facilities here focus on producing small molecules - or ingredients that go into the production of drugs - used for treating patients with respiratory diseases, human immunodeficiency virus and infections.

Lim Hock Heng, vice-president and site director of the pharmaceutical supply chain at GSK Singapore, said: "Our output of small molecules during the Covid-19 period has been relatively constant."

The EDB remains optimistic about the growth potential of the biomedical sciences industry, said Ms Goh, pointing to how companies that have products addressing Covid-19 needs have seen a strong increase in global demand.

Thailand offers tax perks to spur pharma investments

Thailand-based firm Bionet-Asia is racing with other companies and institutes across the world to produce a vaccine for the Covid-19 virus. It has diverted all its resources, including 200 people, to accelerate development of a gene-based vaccine.

"We have already ordered millions of vials even though we don't know yet if the vaccine could work in humans," Bionet chief executive Pham Hong Thai told The Straits Times. In fact, Bionet chose to ship the vials by air rather than sea, despite the flight restrictions around the world.

"No one wants to be in a situation where they have the vaccine working in humans but then discover they are missing the passage containers or stoppers to supply the vaccine," he said. "So there is a race, there is restriction, there is shortage of materials - not only of active ingredients."

While Thailand hosts one of the largest pharmaceutical sectors in South-east Asia, it imports some 90 per cent of the ingredients for finished products, said the Bank of Ayudhya in its research report last month.

Within the region, Thailand's pharmaceuticals market was smaller only than Indonesia's from 2013 to 2018.

Last year, Thailand's domestic market for pharmaceuticals was worth 184.1 billion baht (S$8.2 billion), while pharma exports generated 13 billion baht in receipts. Research and development in the kingdom tends to focus on vaccines for Aids, bird flu and influenza.

Most of Thailand's conventional medicine-makers are end-stage producers of generic drugs which mix active ingredients imported from abroad.

No more than 5 per cent of accredited domestic pharmaceutical producers can manufacture active ingredients like aluminium hydroxide, aspirin or sodium bicarbonate. Those that do, use these ingredients in-house.

The Bank of Ayudhya report warned that Thai producers will face rising prices for pharmaceutical inputs as exporters grapple with the coronavirus.

Indonesia's big players and partners join Covid-19 vaccine race

INDONESIA's major pharmaceutical companies and their foreign partners have joined the race to produce vaccines against the coronavirus that has killed nearly 1,800 people and infected more than 29,000 in the world's fourth-most populous nation.

State-owned Bio Farma, which was founded in 1890 and is the only vaccine maker in the country, is teaming up with Chinese biopharmaceutical company Sinovac Biotech to work on a vaccine that will be available in Indonesia early next year.

Dr Neni Nurainy, Bio Farma's research and development project senior integration manager, said the cooperation would quickly make available a vaccine in Indonesia, which is home to around 270 million people. "Bio Farma will source the active pharmaceutical ingredient from Sinovac, then formulate and do the fill-finish part," she told The Straits Times.

Dr Neni said Bio Farma's capacity for fill-finish - the process when the vaccine vials are filled and packed - for the Covid-19 vaccine is up to 100 million doses per year.

Sinovac is expected to carry out clinical trials in Indonesia in the third quarter of this year.

The company began the first phase of human clinical trials for the vaccine in mid-April.

Bio Farma, which exports vaccines to 147 countries including Singapore, can produce up to two billion doses of vaccines every year.

Apart from the cooperation with Sinovac, Bio Farma also participates in a consortium comprising Indonesian universities and research agencies led by the Jakarta-based Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology to develop vaccines locally.

Indonesia's sole vaccine manufacturer hopes to secure a prototype vaccine from the institute in the first quarter of next year. After that, it will conduct clinical trials with a goal to produce the vaccines in the fourth quarter of next year.

'Pharmacy of the world' India in overdrive

INDIA'S ability to deliver cost-effective and quality generic drugs, such as those that helped millions living with HIV, earned it the reputation of being the "pharmacy of the world".

This attribute has come into greater salience amid a global quest for potential treatment options and vaccines for Covid-19.

Indian pharmaceutical companies, for instance, quickly ramped up production of hydroxychloroquine in April and are now helping to meet a surging demand for an anti-viral drug believed to aid in the treatment of Covid-19 patients.

Last month, Gilead Sciences, an American pharmaceutical firm, signed a non-exclusive voluntary licensing agreement with four generic pharmaceutical firms based in India, allowing them to manufacture remdesivir for distribution in 127 countries and territories. It also permits them to set the price for their products.

The drug has been authorised for emergency use to treat Covid-19 patients, including in the United States and India.

As of January, the firm had remdesivir stocks to treat 5,000 patients. Backed by manufacturers in India and elsewhere, it hopes to increase its availability to more than a million treatment courses by December, assuming a 10-day treatment course.

There is also a good chance that any eventual vaccine against the coronavirus will be mass-produced in India if it has to be widely available. Among the front runners is the Pune-based Serum Institute, the world's largest vaccine-maker by number of doses, which exceed 1.5 billion a year.

On Thursday (June 3), AstraZeneca announced a licensing agreement with it for a vaccine it is co-developing with the University of Oxford.

Under this agreement, the Indian firm will supply one billion doses for low-and middle-income countries, with a commitment to provide 400 million before year end. - The Straits Times/Asian News Network
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