Indonesia in talks with Pfizer on Covid-19 vaccine and cold-chain storage

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine must be stored at ultra cold temperatures of negative 70 deg C, thus requiring special freezers. PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA - Indonesia has begun talks with officials from US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer to secure the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine to ensure sufficient supplies before a massive roll-out of a vaccination drive next year in the world's fourth most populous country.

The talks involved the health ministry earlier this week and will continue next week with officials from BPOM, Indonesia's equivalent of the US Food and Drug Administration, two government officials said on condition of anonymity.

"Pfizer offered to help provide the required cold-chain facility to ensure proper distribution of their vaccines," one official told The Straits Times.

Unlike most vaccines, which need to be kept at normal refrigerated temperatures of between 2 to 8 deg C, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine must be stored at ultra-cold temperatures of minus 70 deg C, thus requiring special freezers. In regular refrigerators, it can be kept for up to only five days. The firms are seeking to create a second-generation version of their two-dose regimen that can withstand warmer temperatures.

A few days after returning from a visit to the United States, Indonesia's coordinating maritime affairs and investment minister Luhut Pandjaitan said on Tuesday (Nov 24) that Vice-President Mike Pence had offered "joint cooperation in vaccine production between American and Indonesian companies".

Indonesia has reported a total of 522,581 Covid-19 cases as of Friday with 16,521 deaths. Both figures are the highest in South-east Asia.

The country has so far secured commitments for the shipment of 189 million vaccine doses from China's Sinovac, Maryland-based Novavax and Covax, an international Covid-19 vaccine allocation platform co-led by the World Health Organisation.

Indonesia's population is 270 million and the plan is for 107.2 million of them - those aged between 18 and 59 - to be vaccinated. Those with pre-existing medical conditions or deemed unfit will not be included in the programme.

The country has also set aside a buffer of 15 per cent for its vaccine stockpile. At two doses each, it would thus need 247 million doses in its stockpile by next year.

South-east Asia's largest economy has also tried to secure vaccines from China's Sinopharm and CanSino Biologics as well as from the UK's AstraZeneca, but to no avail yet.

State drugmaker Bio Farma and Padjadjaran University in West Java have since August been conducting Phase III clinical trials on Sinovac's vaccine, but scant details on them have sparked worries about the process. Critics noted that sample size for the clinical trials was too small as it involved just 1,600 people.

Dr Penny K. Lukito, BPOM's head, has said that it is always ready to accommodate the choice of a vaccine so long as it has gone through proper trials.

"The clinical trials do not have to be done in Indonesia. Data from the country the vaccines are from can be used as a basis for BPOM to evaluate and decide on emergency use approval," Dr Penny told a virtual media briefing on Thursday.

The Straits Times understands that President Joko Widodo expressed disappointment over the government's slow progress on vaccine procurement efforts during a meeting with the Cabinet earlier this week.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.