Thailand’s Development Race for a COVID Vaccine Hits a Roadblock

15 Sep 2020

As Thailand's race for a Covid-19 vaccine continues research teams say they are progressing slowly in their efforts but there is still no confirmation that people will soon be safe from the COVID-19 that has brought the world to a global standstill.


All of the Covid-19 vaccine efforts in Thailand are in the pre-clinical stage at this point. This means the prototypes are not yet ready for human testing. Even the global search suffered a setback as well. Clinical (human) trials by pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford have been suspended this month. Since a volunteer acquired an unidentified disease.


But the myriad of complicated issues surrounding the development of the vaccine is accompanied by other obstacles for Thai researchers.

Too few resources for the Covid-19 project


Prof. Dr. Kiat Ruxrungtham, who leads the COVID-19 vaccine project at Chulalongkorn University, said that while his team has achieved good results in macaques, this will not produce human test vaccines in the near future.


"We have to wait for our experimental vaccines to be produced in a foreign manufacturing facility. Currently, the producers are busy. Our Phase 1 clinical trials would therefore have to wait until the first quarter of next year at least, "he said.


His team expected to launch human trials by October before learning of this obstacle.


Prof. Dr. Yong Poovorawan, a Chulalongkorn University clinical virology expert, reported that one of the main challenges Thailand faced was its lack of facilities to manufacture experimental vaccines for human trials.


Kiat said a few months ago that his team had actually booked a production slot with a foreign facility. But their application had been postponed because of the busy schedule of the producer.


Many prototypes being developed in labs


The prototype produced by the Kiat team is the only one that has created an immune response in macaques in Thailand, said Dr. Nakorn Premsri, director of the National Vaccine Institute.


The other three prototypes have been tested on guinea pigs that have shown success. Another team at Chulalongkorn University developed them; Bio-net Asia Co Ltd, and Baiya Phytopharm Co Ltd.

"A lot of other prototypes are being developed in laboratories," Nakorn said. According to their method of producing an immune response, the prototypes fell into many categories – including subunit-like particles (VLPs), inactivated vaccines, and viral vectors.


His institute closely monitors the success of the vaccine projects, the outcomes of which will make a big difference for both people's health and the economy of Thailand.


Too many teams seeking vaccine of Covid-19


Yong is disappointed, however, that Thailand's COVID-19 vaccine search is split into so many separate teams, and hopes that collaboration would yield better results.


"Thailand has limited human resources, infrastructure, and financial resources," he said. This means that competition is less effective in achieving a vaccine's ultimate goal, so the teams can come together and collaborate instead.


Yong added that teamwork would result in a stronger and faster chance of success because each team has its own strengths. For example, Thonburi Technology University of King Mongkut could offer its advanced facilities for the advanced research of other teams, he said.


"And if we worked together, we'd have enough [financial] resources to ensure smooth technology transfer from overseas," he said. One of Mahidol University's 3 vaccine teams is now heavily indebted.


Yong said technology transfer would help Thai teams skip steps and save time in the development process.


He cautioned that if it sticks to its old ways Thailand's vaccine search would fail. Pointing out that Thai researchers are currently being bogged down in flu vaccine trials spurred by an epidemic in 2009. Worse still, only three strains of the virus can be handled by Thailand's prototype, while manufacturers elsewhere have already produced a four-strain vaccine.


Ensuring Thais get access to a COVID-19 vaccine


Yong said that at a recent COVID-19 vaccine development meeting, as did Nakorn and Kiat. The event was organized by the National Vaccine Institute; the Department of Disease Control; and the Department of Medical Sciences and attracted more than 200 participants.


In the meantime, Nakorn said his institute is working on various fronts to ensure Thais have access to a COVID-19 vaccine. So far, the virus has infected more than 28 million people around the world and killed almost a million.


"We've already received Bt1 billion as an emergency budget and allocated some of it to the Chulalongkorn University Team [Kiat-led] and to Thailand's National Primate Research Centre," he said. The remaining amount will be spent on improving the vaccine-development potential and technology transfer in Thailand.


Nakorn added that his institute will get more government support once the National Council for Economic and Social Development gets the green light for its project to ease the effects of COVID-19.


His institute takes a multi-pronged approach to obtain vaccine access. 

"There are three approaches based on our Blueprint. Support the research teams in Thailand, cooperate with other nations, and procure vaccines from overseas, "he said. "We have not given up on any of these choices."


Nakorn also said that he will work to ensure that state support for the production of other vaccines is solid and is delivered without hindrance. "Why expect a pandemic to break out? "he asked.


Vaccine progress across the globe


More than 200 prototypes of the Covid-19 vaccines are being produced worldwide.


Forty-two of these, though 140 are being tested on animals, have reached clinical trials. 

Human clinical trials are conducted in three stages. In the rush to find a vaccine for COVID-19 however. To date, only nine prototypes have already reached Phase 3. Each of which (Oxford / AstraZeneca) had to be suspended temporarily due to an unexplained illness of a volunteer.


Meanwhile, another Phase 3 prototype – developed by the GamaleyaInstitute in Moscow is facing scientists' questions. Above all, on irregular patterns of development. – Thai PBS