Asia's search for a vaccine

Singapore boosting capacity for fast Covid-19 vaccine production

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 four Asian countries are faring in this crucial effort to end the pandemic.

GlaxoSmithKline, which is working on research for a Covid-19 vaccine, has three facilities here, including Singapore’s only vaccine manufacturing plant.
GlaxoSmithKline, which is working on research for a Covid-19 vaccine, has three facilities here, including Singapore’s only vaccine manufacturing plant.PHOTO: GLAXOSMITHKLINE

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.

PM 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.

American biotechnology company Moderna, one of the leaders in the race to develop a vaccine, is partnering with Swiss firm Lonza to enable larger-scale manufacture of its messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine and additional products.

Lonza has a facility in Tuas that can develop and produce biopharmaceutical products.

The companies said that while the first batches of the potential Covid-19 vaccine will be manufactured at Lonza's facilities in the United States next month, additional production suites will be gradually established across Lonza's worldwide facilities.

  • Key facts

    National biomedical sciences initiative 

    The EDB started developing the industry as part of the initiative in the early 2000s.

    Home to around 50 leading biomedical science companies, including 

    GlaxoSmithKline 

    Pfizer

    Novartis

    Sanofi 

    Amgen

    AbbVie

    Biomedical sciences last year 

    Manufacturing output reached $36 billion and about 24,000 workers were employed.


    SOURCE: ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT BOARD, EDBI - EDB'S INVESTMENT ARM

"This would ultimately allow for the manufacture of material equivalent to up to one billion doses of (the vaccine) per year for use worldwide," the firms said.

Ms Goh Wan Yee, senior vice-president of healthcare at the Economic Development Board, said Singapore has a strong base of research and development and a "compelling value proposition" for the manufacture of pharmaceuticals and medical technology products. "A number of companies are interested to collaborate with Singapore, for instance in clinical trials," she added.

Given Singapore's position as a global pharmaceutical and biomedical hub, it is well placed to support vaccine development and manufacturing, major firms here said.

THE ROAD TO A VACCINE

Vaccines can often take more than 10 years to develop and manufacture, but the scale and impact of the Covid-19 outbreak have seen scientists around the world accelerating their research.

There are now at least 130 vaccine candidates being developed globally, including in Singapore.

Duke-NUS Medical School is working with US firm Arcturus Therapeutics on a vaccine, which involves getting the human body to produce part of Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.

Home-grown contract development manufacturer Esco Aster is also working with US firm Vivaldi Biosciences on a Covid-19 chimeric vaccine - one that is made by merging proteins from different viruses.

Esco Aster chief executive Lin Xiangliang said the company - which has facilities in Changi and Ayer Rajah - has sufficient bioreactor capacity to produce 10 million doses for Singapore and could scale up production within a year to produce about one billion doses for Asean.

There are now around seven different types of vaccines being researched, said Mr Rajeev Nair, senior vice-president and head of Asia-Pacific for research solutions in the life science business of biotech company Merck.

Merck does not produce vaccines, but supplies manufacturers with various products, such as reagents and tools and platforms that help in developing therapies.


An engineer working on an experimental virus vaccine at a Sinovac Biotech facility in Beijing in April. PHOTO: AFP

"Each type of vaccine requires different technologies for development, manufacturing and testing," he said, adding that mRNA vaccines, for one, are an emerging innovative method in development.

Traditional vaccines work by injecting whole but inactive viruses, or their whole proteins, into patients to stimulate an immune reaction. But mRNA vaccines like the one being developed by Moderna involve injecting snippets of the viral genetic code so a patient's body mounts a protective response without being actually exposed to the whole virus.

CHALLENGES TO SCALING UP

Developers told The Straits Times that it was too early to speculate on when a vaccine would be available.

Pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), which has a presence here, has partnered with multiple international research groups and firms on the development of a vaccine, including French company Sanofi. The British firm has three manufacturing facilities here, including a vaccine manufacturing plant in Tuas - the only such plant in Singapore.

 
 
 
 

A GSK spokesman said how quickly vaccine production can be scaled up depends on many factors, including the type of vaccine that is eventually approved.

"One country cannot think of manufacturing a vaccine on its own," the spokesman said, pointing to how production requires a global supply chain. For example, GSK's plant here produces conjugates, an important ingredient that the firm uses for its pneumococcal conjugate vaccines.

But between the completion of the vaccine production and having the final product ready to be used on patients here, there are other processes that need to be done abroad, said the spokesman.

Similarly, a Covid-19 vaccine could require other ingredients.

For example, should a Covid-19 vaccine comprise adjuvants - an ingredient to boost the human immune response - another specialised manufacturing facility would be required. Getting regulatory approvals for this, and the actual construction process, could take years, the spokesman noted.

Said the spokesman: "Hence, to expedite any Covid-19 vaccine manufacturing, GSK took the collaborative approach with multiple companies and research groups across the world through the use of their innovative vaccine adjuvant technology."

 
 
 

Pharmaceutical firm MSD, which has research and manufacturing facilities here, is also looking into developing a Covid-19 vaccine, although its network of vaccine manufacturing sites is located primarily in the US and Europe.

But Dr Aileen Dualan, MSD's medical affairs lead for Asia-Pacific, said the firm has committed to ensure that vaccines developed for the coronavirus will be accessible and affordable globally.

She said: "We are already working to scale up manufacturing capacity to produce hundreds of millions of vaccine doses."

PM Lee told yesterday's summit, which was co-organised by the British government and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, that the discovery, production and distribution of a safe and effective vaccine is vital to getting life back to normal.

"I hope that this summit will help focus our minds and resources, and forge partnerships to promote 'vaccine multilateralism'."

SEE SCIENCE 

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 06, 2020, with the headline 'Singapore: Boosting capacity for fast production'. Subscribe