Exclusive-Indonesia in talks with WHO to become global vaccine hub: minister


FILE PHOTO: Indonesian Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin shows the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine at a mass vaccination programme in Surabaya, Indonesia, March 23, 2021 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Moch Asim/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. INDONESIA OUT./File Photo

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia is in talks with the World Health Organization (WHO) as well as six drug companies to become a global hub for manufacturing vaccines, its health minister told Reuters.

Detailing the ambitious strategy for the first time, Budi Gunadi Sadikin said in an interview that Indonesia would kickstart the initiative by prioritising purchases of COVID-19 vaccines from companies that shared technology and set up facilities in Indonesia.

"We are working with the WHO to be one of the global manufacturing hubs for mRNA," he said, adding he had directly lobbied WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on a trip earlier this month to Europe.

"The WHO has pointed to South Africa as the first location, and I said that logically Indonesia should be the second."

The new "technology transfer hubs" are part of a WHO strategy to more widely distribute vaccine production globally and build capacity in developing countries to make new generation vaccines like Moderna and Pfizer's nucleic acid-based mRNA jabs which can be quickly adapted to handle new virus variants.

Efforts to develop a base for COVID-19 vaccine production in South Africa will focus on trying to replicate Moderna's shot, but a lack of progress in talks with the U.S. company mean the project will take time, a senior WHO official told Reuters.

Budi said Indonesia was keen to build expertise in mRNA vaccines, as well as viral vector shots such as those produced by AstraZeneca.

A WHO spokesperson said Indonesia was one of 25 low and middle income countries to express interest in hosting a vaccine hub but declined to say if it was a leading candidate.

Budi said Indonesia was well-placed to export vaccines around the world, especially as it is the world's most populous Muslim-majority country and could guarantee that its jabs were halal, or permissible according to Islam.

Indonesia has grappled with one of the most severe outbreaks of COVID-19 in Asia and has recorded more than 4.1 million infections and 139,000 deaths, although public health experts say the true figures are likely several times higher.

Indonesia's rate of infections and deaths has declined sharply in recent weeks but, with only 25 per cent of its target population of 208 million people fully inoculated against COVID-19, it still has a major vaccination effort ahead, especially as it likely will have to provide third booster shots.

Budi said Indonesian pharmaceutical companies are in discussions with vaccine manufacturers and developers Anhui, Walvax, Sinovac, Genexine, Arcturus Therapeutics and Novavax. The talks range from basic "fill and finish" to upstream production and research and development, he added.

"We open the same opportunities also to AstraZeneca. We are also open to the existing partner Pfizer," he said. "We are open to anyone."

Bambang Heriyanto, corporate secretary of Bio Farma, Indonesia's largest state-owned drug company, confirmed the talks were on and the first step was to collaborate on the transfer of technology. It would take two or three years to build a fully operational production facility, he said.

Budi said Indonesia would use its leadership of the G-20 group of countries starting in December to promote global health security and prepare for the next pandemic after the coronavirus, also known as SARS-CoV-2.

"No one can guarantee that SARS-CoV-3 and 4 will not come."

(Reporting by Tom Allard in Jakarta and Kate Lamb in Sydney; Additional reporting by Agustinus Beo Da Costa in Jakarta; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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