BANGKOK (BLOOMBERG) - A race to develop a vaccine against Covid-19 is paving the way for researchers in Thailand to produce inoculations against other diseases.
Currently, there are about 20 vaccines against the coronavirus being developed in Thailand. Two of the nation's most advanced research programmes are expecting to start their first phase of clinical trials by early next year.
While other vaccines from big drugmakers such as Pfizer Inc and AstraZeneca Plc are further ahead in bringing a Covid-19 inoculation to the global market, Thailand is positioning itself to play a more significant role in fighting epidemics.
The urgency of the pandemic has unlocked more government and academic support, which could break the bottlenecks that have held back Thai research into other non-Covid vaccines.
"We hope that with Covid-19, Thailand can enter a new era where we can speed up the development and production of vaccines," said Mr Pham Hong Thai, chief executive officer of Bangkok-based BioNet-Asia Co.
Thailand needs inoculations against re-emerging or epidemic diseases, such as dengue, pandemic influenza, and rabies, he said.
The country has focused on producing its own coronavirus shot rather than waiting to buy inoculations from abroad, amid concerns that less-wealthy nations will be left behind in the scramble for scarce supplies.
According to Bloomberg's Covid Resilience Ranking, the countries with the most frontrunner vaccine supply agreements are bigger and wealthier nations like the US and Japan. Developing countries like Indonesia have inked deals because they've allowed developers to trial the shots locally.
That's an option that Thailand, which has virtually eradicated the pathogen domestically, cannot offer.
"Thailand is a country where you have strong academic research on vaccines," said Mr Pham, whose company plans to start Covid-19 vaccine human trials by January. "The challenge is to move from research to production, and this has been a challenge for many years."
The two leading Thai vaccine research programmes are using new technology that relies on administering the genetic information to the cell to induce an immune response to the coronavirus.
BioNet's vaccine uses the DNA platform, while another programme is using messenger RNA, similar to those developed by Moderna Inc. and Pfizer, which recently showed high efficacy in preventing infections in trials.
"These results show that the new technology works and that it has low risks," said Dr Kiat Ruxrungtham, head researcher at Chulalongkorn University's Centre of Excellence in Vaccine Research and Development.
Dr Kiat is leading the mRNA vaccine research that is set to start the first phase of clinical trials in April and the second phase in June. The tests were to begin earlier this year, but faced delays in the production of doses. The vaccines may be available by the end of 2021 after receiving emergency-use authorisation.
"We may be slower this time, but our key achievement is that we learned from the experience and the next time we can be faster," Dr Kiat said, adding that the new technology can be used to produce vaccines for other diseases.
If human trials of the two Thai vaccines are successful, the production of the doses for wider distribution could be done in Thailand.
Dr Kiat said that there could be as many as 5 million doses of mRNA vaccines by the end of next year. BioNet has already produced clinical doses for its DNA vaccines, and is in the process of setting up production capacity to manufacture the mRNA vaccines next year.
Thailand's Health Ministry has set a target of inoculating about 50 per cent of the population by next year. It plans to get 26 million doses from the World Health Organisation-backed Covax programme, 26 million from AstraZeneca, and 13 million more from other sources, all of which could give immunity to about 32 million people in Thailand, where the tourism-reliant economy has been hard hit by the pandemic.
That leaves plenty of opportunities for suppliers, especially as the long-term efficacy of each vaccine isn't known yet.
"We shouldn't put all the eggs in the same basket," said BioNet's Mr Pham. "Thailand has to build up its own capabilities and the resources to develop and ultimately deliver vaccines to the population."