Thai researchers closer to finding Covid-19 vaccine

A researcher at the Chula Vaccine Development Centre shows a tube of vaccine prototype. This prototype is now being tested on macaques.

Hope is in sight for the region as Thai researchers make progress in the hunt for a vaccine against coronavirus, which has wreaked havoc across the world for several months now.

“If we can produce a Covid-19 vaccine, we can provide it to other Asean nations such as Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia as well,” said Dr Kiat Ruxrungtham, chair of Chulalongkorn University’s Chula Vaccine Research Centre. “We will even provide the vaccine to Pakistan,” he added.

He was speaking after his team began testing an mRNA vaccine prototype on crab-eating macaques. If tests are successful, Kiat believes human trials will start by early October.

“If things go as planned, Thailand will have its own Covid-19 vaccine next year,” he said.

Full speed ahead

Kiat’s 10-member team is close to clinching a speed record for vaccine development in Thai medical history. His team began decoding the new coronavirus in January, and by March, its mRNA vaccine prototype was ready and being tested on guinea pigs. After achieving satisfactory results in that test, the prototype was then injected in macaques on May 23.

Kiat said work on the vaccine has moved fast thanks to solid contributions and support from the owner of the mRNA technology, Professor Dr Drew Weissman from the University of Pennsylvania.

In recent years, Weissmann and other researchers have shown that the use of modified nucleosides may unlock the potential of mRNA vaccines by boosting translation and decreasing activation of the innate immune system. By tweaking these immunostimulatory properties, researchers think they can create vaccines that are safer, more effective and faster to produce than conventional shots.

“He shared his technology with us because he wants Thailand and low-income nations to have access to the crucial vaccine,” he said. “Dr Weissman has been a true partner, also attending online meetings with us every week.”

As of June 2, Thailand had recorded 3,083 confirmed cases of Covid-19, 2,966 of whom have recovered while 59 remain hospitalised. So far, the virus has killed 58 people in Thailand.

Worldwide, the virus has infected more than 6.3 million people and claimed over 370,000 lives.

Given the scope of the pandemic, Kiat said it would be best if Thailand could produce its own vaccine.

“The global population stands at 7.7 billion. China alone has 1.4 billion citizens to care for, while the United States has 330 million. So even if these countries successfully create a vaccine, it will be difficult for other nations to gain access to the new drug,” he said.

Kiat added that the Covid-19 outbreak has changed his team’s approach – which had previously been limited to research on vaccines that Thailand also had the capacity to produce.

“But now, we sealed a contract with a vaccine plant overseas even before results of the macaque tests are released,” he said.

His team’s research was initially funded by a Chulalongkorn University start-up fund, but now also receives money from the National Vaccine Institute and the National Research Council of Thailand.

Racing against time

At present, more than 200 potential Covid-19 vaccine prototypes are being developed across the world using different technologies. Here, the government has pledged Bt5 billion to support Thailand’s effort, and six organisations, both state-owned and private, racing to create a vaccine.

The first is the Chula Vaccine Research Centre, which has achieved significant progress with its mRNA, or messenger RNA-based prototype. The second, Bionet-Asia Company Ltd, is now testing its DNA-based prototype on guinea pigs.

The third and the fourth are Mahidol University’s Faculty of Science and Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences, which are both working on a vaccine based on protein subunits.

The fifth, Mahidol University’s Faculty of Medicine Siriraj Hospital, has been experimenting with viral-like particles (VLP), while the sixth, Mahidol University’s Centre for Vaccine Development, has been working on inactivated vaccine.

Kiat said his team had decided to go with mRNA technology because it can produce more doses than the DNA type, for the same money.

“For instance, if each dose of a DNA vaccine needs 2 milligrams of the substance, an mRNA dose will only require 0.1mg,” he said. He calculates that if his team’s prototype is successful in human trials, each dose will only cost about Bt600.

Plan for human trials

Prof Dr Suchinda Malaivijitnond, director of the National Primate Research Centre of Thailand, said macaques were chosen for the vaccine trials because their immune response is similar to that of humans.

“Test results on macaques will be available in three months,” she said.

Kiat, meanwhile, said he planned several phases of human trials: the first will cover 100 Bangkok residents, the second will cover 500 to 1,000 people at medical schools both in Bangkok and the provinces, while the third will see the vaccine injected into some 5,000 test subjects.

He said a US factory has been contracted to produce 10,000 doses of the mRNA vaccine once it has been developed by the Chula Vaccine Research Centre. As part of the contract, the factory will transfer its technology to Thailand-based Bionet Asia company so the Kingdom can set up its own vaccine production.

Thailand’s own vaccine factory

Kiat said Bionet Asia was chosen because its plant is already able to produce protein-based vaccines, adding that negotiations between his centre and the company going well and the procurement of equipment is being planned.

“It will take six more months to set up the factory,” he said.

Meanwhile, the National Vaccine Institute’s director Dr Nakorn Premsri said at this point, it is still unclear which of the many vaccine prototypes will be effective in boosting people’s immunity against Covid-19.

“But in Thailand, the development of DNA-type and mRNA vaccines have achieved the biggest progress,” he said. 

By ThaiPBS World’s General Desk

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