Making our own homegrown Malaysian vaccines

At the moment, Malaysia only does the fill-and-finish process for human Covid-19 vaccines, although we do produce some vaccines for animals. — Pharmaniaga

Today, the only vaccines Malaysia produces from start to finish are animal vaccines.

These include vaccines against infectious bronchitis and swine fever manufactured by Malaysian Vaccines and Pharmaceuticals Sdn Bhd.

Two Malaysian companies are involved in the fill-and-finish process for the Sinovac and CanSinoBio Covid-19 vaccines, but this is a relatively simpler bottling process and not the relatively harder production of active ingredients for these vaccines.

Unfortunately, we have always relied on foreign countries for our human vaccine supplies.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us the importance of having vaccine independence, which can be defined as the ability to produce our own vaccines domestically.

In today’s column, we explore the reasons why we should produce our own vaccines and propose several ways to achieve this vaccine independence.

Why do it?

There are three reasons why Malaysia should produce our own vaccines.

Firstly, it is to ensure Malaysians have direct access to life-saving vaccines.

Developing nations tend to be at the mercy of the global vaccine supply chain, while developed nations hoard a disproportionate amount of vaccine supplies, as proven during the current pandemic.

Manufacturing our own vaccines enables us to avoid vaccine inequity between the haves and the have-nots, which is crucial for pandemic recovery and public health.

Secondly, vaccine independence also allows Malaysia to avoid geopolitical tension that may affect vaccine access.

During a pandemic, geopolitics can significantly affect a nation’s access to vaccines because vaccine- exporting countries tend to play vaccine diplomacy with “strings attached”.

An example is China demonstrating soft power by offering its homemade vaccines to developing nations.

Vaccine independence gives Malaysia the ability to not compromise political and national interests over vaccine access.

Thirdly, the aspiration of becoming a vaccine-producing nation can also stimulate scientific research in Malaysia, spur innovation, create jobs and add to our economic output, while reducing payments to foreign countries and companies to purchase vaccines.

The investment in vaccine research and development (R&D) can enhance talent acquisition, improve research infrastructure and even open up new research frontiers, such as in halal pharmaceuticals.

Such efforts are necessary if we wish to become a developed nation by 2024.

The private pharmaceutical industry in Malaysia should be encouraged to invest more in R&D and manufacturing homegrown human vaccines, especially those involving the latest mRNA and DNA technology. — FilepicThe private pharmaceutical industry in Malaysia should be encouraged to invest more in R&D and manufacturing homegrown human vaccines, especially those involving the latest mRNA and DNA technology. — Filepic

Let the private sector lead

In tandem with the goal of becoming a developed country, Malaysia should also be on track to become a vaccine-producing country.

Some made-in-Malaysia vaccines in the pipeline are Covid-19 and cholera vaccines.

Meanwhile, the Science, Technology and Innovation (Mosti) and Health Ministries (MOH) are working together to draft the National Vaccine Development Roadmap.

This is a long-term plan that aims to transform Malaysia into a vaccine-producing country.

We propose four ways for Malaysia to begin producing our own vaccines.

Firstly, Mosti should be a strategist and regulator, and allow the private sector to engage in free-market competition that results in efficacious and affordable vaccines.

Mosti should not attempt to monopolise vaccine production via government-linked companies (GLCs), which can stifle innovation and breed corruption.

The biotech industry is not the government’s strong suit, as evident from the past failures of national biotech companies such as BiotechCorp (a part of Mosti), Ninebio Sdn Bhd (a part of MOH) and Inno Biologics Sdn Bhd (a part of the Finance Ministry).

Malaysia can take inspiration from the public-private dichotomy in the United States where the pharmaceutical companies are private entities that dedicate all resources to R&D and manufacturing, while the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) supports national vaccination strategies.

Secondly, the private sector should invest more in vaccine R&D and production.

Cutting down less profitable product streams and pivoting to vaccine production could be a good place to start.

While inactivated vaccines may be easier to produce, local companies should play the long-term game by developing revolutionary vaccine technology such as mRNA- (messenger ribonucleic acid) and DNA-based (deoxyribonucleic acid) vaccines.

To achieve vaccine independence, the private sector should not be satisfied with just passively manufacturing other countries’ innovations – they should also strive for more vaccine innovation.

Collaboration between the private sector and universities is highly welcomed to produce vaccine products with novel vectors, dosage forms and storage conditions, including building pan-coronavirus vaccines in temperature-stable and potentially oral forms (i.e. tablets or capsules).

Generics and supply

The Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated how countries can be at the mercy of the global vaccine supply chain, especially undeveloped and developing nations. — Health MinistryThe Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated how countries can be at the mercy of the global vaccine supply chain, especially undeveloped and developing nations. — Health Ministry

Thirdly, the Malaysian Investment Development Authority (Mida) can work with the Medicines Patent Pool (MPP) to promote the generic manufacturing of pharmaceutical products such as vaccines.

The MPP is a United Nations-backed organisation working to increase access to, and development of, life-saving medications for low- and middle-income countries.

Through this endeavour, innovator companies (which mostly hail from developed nations) can sub-license their vaccines to Malaysian companies to produce generic versions.

Mida can also create a support system that helps private companies in Malaysia secure their intellectual property (IP) rights for their new vaccine innovations.

To spur innovation, the Finance Ministry can create a regulatory sandbox for private companies and universities to collaborate in a more agile way, as well as accelerating the innovation and commercialisation process.

Fourthly, in the long run, the International Trade and Industry Ministry should strengthen the resilience of our vaccine raw materials supply chain by securing bilateral/multilateral agreements with supplier countries for relevant active pharmaceutical ingredients.

Malaysia should heed the cautionary tale of India’s Covid-19 vaccine supply chain crisis.

The Serum Institute of India – one of the world’s largest vaccine manufacturers – faced a shortage of raw and packaging materials, consumables and equipment, due to the unprecedented high demand for Covid-19 vaccines in the country and the US’ decision to block export of key raw materials.

Multiple benefits

Vaccine production has many technical and capital (both financial and human) barriers, but these are surmountable with the right set of political, economic and legal tools.

The Covid-19 pandemic is providing a unique opportunity to elevate Malaysia’s biopharmaceutical industry standing on the value chain.

Instead of producing low-cost, low-capital, low-tech pills at low prices, there are good commercial reasons why we can and should produce high-value and high-tech vaccines.

The public health, commercial and national security benefits are incalculable.

All in all, vaccine independence is a tremendous and costly effort, but necessary for our own health security.

A crucial first step is to finalise and publicise the National Vaccine Development Roadmap so that the private sector, higher education institutions and investors can understand the strategic direction and all pull together.

The Covid-19 pandemic wasn’t the first to devastate the world and it won’t be the last.

Vaccine independence will help us fight the next pandemic.

Joyce Toh is a pharmacist with an interest in public health policymaking. Dr Khor Swee Kheng is a physician specialising in health policies and global health, who tweets as @DrKhorSK. The views expressed here are entirely their own. For more information, email The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

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