China, US share technology in ASEAN for vaccine diplomacy benefit

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JAKARTA / HANOI – Chinese and US vaccine diplomacy has entered a new stage as their drug makers transfer technology to players in Southeast Asia to kickstart local production.

The region praised these efforts because they provide more stimulus to the pharmaceutical industry there and create more jobs than shipments of ready-to-use coronavirus vaccines. Some companies have even started testing vaccines in Southeast Asia that have yet to receive approval in the countries where they were produced.

Etana Biotechnologies Indonesia will start producing mRNA vaccines – the same type developed by Pfizer and Moderna – in July, Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s coordinating minister for maritime affairs and investment, announced last month.

Etana receives technological assistance from Chinese drug maker Walvax Biotechnology. The Indonesian company is currently conducting phase 3 trials, with plans to eventually produce 70 million doses per year.

More than 80% of vaccines obtained by Indonesia come from Chinese companies Sinovac Biotech or Sinopharm. But their inactivated virus vaccines are said to be less effective than mRNA injections, and the Indonesian government is rushing to get more doses of Pfizer and Moderna.

Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines are also the most commonly available options in mainland China. Walvax is working to get approval for its mRNA shot there.

Located in the heart of the Indo-Pacific, Southeast Asia has become the front line of vaccine diplomacy. China had provided 190 million doses to members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations by mid-September.

China has particularly focused on Indonesia – home to Southeast Asia’s largest economy and population – in terms of technology transfers. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi expressed hope that the country will become a production center for the region.

Meanwhile, the United States is catching up with the help of its partners in the region.

US company Dynavax Technologies signed a memorandum of understanding on vaccine development with Indonesian state-owned Bio Farma last week. The deal allows the companies to jointly develop a vaccine using recombinant proteins, said Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, who attended the signing.

Arkturus Therapeutics is preparing to produce an mRNA vaccine in partnership with the leading Vietnamese conglomerate Vingroup. He announced on Wednesday that its Phase 1 trial in Vietnam has ended, with the Phase 2 trial scheduled to begin with people with similar characteristics to those for whom the new vaccine is intended.

The company aims to start production at a new factory in Hanoi in early 2022 and achieve up to 200 million doses per year.

Beyond Chinese and American players, Japan’s Shionogi is looking to conduct Phase 3 trials – the last trial involving thousands before the vaccine was released to the public – in Vietnam and other Asian countries. South East, and strives to transfer its technology to these markets.

Siam Bioscience, owned by Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn, started producing AstraZeneca vaccines there in June. About half of vaccines in Thailand are made in China, and the government is looking to diversify its supply towards mixed-dose regimens.

The number of cases in Southeast Asia is declining after a summer increase driven by the delta variant. But concerns about the new contagious variants persist. The region relies on vaccines made overseas, which means supply could plunge once countries like the United States begin to focus on home booster shots. There are strong incentives to start producing plans in the country, even if they are not yet officially approved.

Indonesian insiders hope vaccine production will strengthen the domestic pharmaceutical industry. Developing, manufacturing and distributing plans requires input from many different sectors and could increase employment rates.

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