Southeast Asia takes growing role in COVID-19 vaccines and treatments


As more than a hundred teams all over the world research and test potential COVID-19 vaccines and medicines, Southeast Asian projects are among those making promising initial progress.

By John Pennington

The coronavirus pandemic continues to kill thousands per day and wreak havoc on the global economy. The longer the outbreak lasts, the more people’s willingness to adhere to restrictions dwindles and the need for accurate testing, effective treatment and reliable vaccines grows.

Encouragingly, there are around 150 projects focused on developing vaccines for the novel coronavirus. Eight of them are already testing on humans. “Over 100 candidate vaccines are trying to defeat 29 microscopic proteins,” pinpointed Helen Ramscar, associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

In Singapore and Vietnam, high-profile collaborations show promise

In Singapore, there are several ongoing efforts, including a joint venture between the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and the US’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Their goal is to develop fast, non-invasive and accurate diagnostic tests which deliver results in as little as 10 minutes.

“Collaborations with NTU, MIT and amongst the five IRGs (Interdisciplinary Research Groups) within SMART have allowed us to tap on the wide range of disciplines and expertise required to develop the tests in a short amount of time,” explained SMART principal investigator Hadley Sikes.

A SMART AMR IRG researcher optimising prototype assay Photo: Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART)

Other examples include Singapore’s ISDN Holdings partnership with German firm ERST Project GmbH to create environmentally friendly and innovative disinfectant solutions. “As a start, some product samples have already been supplied to Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia,” confirmed Teo Cher Koon, ISDN managing director and president.

In Vietnam, state-owned vaccine company Vabiotech is forging ahead with trials of a vaccine in partnership with Bristol University. Initial tests showed promise as 50 mice treated with the vaccine in one trial survived and a second phase is due to start in June. If it meets with further success, Vabiotech will seek funding from international organisations to take their research further.

A note of caution: even though this is positive news, some scientists predict it will still take between 12 and 18 months to develop a vaccine that is ready for use. Furthermore, others expect that only around 10% of candidate vaccines make it to the testing stage.

Indonesian and Thai teams of scientists set ambitious targets

Meanwhile, Indonesian scientists are attempting to ready a vaccine within 12 months, having identified and mapped the coronavirus strain specific to their country. They will face challenges to reach their ambitious target, particularly as they will need assistance from elsewhere to import reagents, take samples from across all regions of the country and fund the research.

But their approach raises another question: if vaccines only work in specific regions or countries, how many of them will the world need to keep coronavirus at bay?

Similarly, Thailand claims it will have a vaccine next year after its scientists achieved some promising results testing on mice. The project, bringing together the National Vaccine Institute, the Department of Medical Science and Chulalongkorn University’s vaccine research centre, will soon begin tests on monkeys.

Both projects have announced targets for completion that are much quicker than is usually possible. The fast push highlights the seriousness of the situation and suggests that teams do have an eye on being first to market.

This is understandable as vaccine development is a lucrative business. When US firm Moderna Inc. shared its promising testing results in May, its shares surged by around 30% on the New York Stock Exchange. Describing it as a “scientific gold rush”, Ramscar of RUSI lauded teams for collaborating but pointed out that governments have put huge amounts of money into their own teams’ efforts. They hope to reap financial rewards if the vaccines get to market.

Elsewhere in the region, countries are relying on outside assistance

Poorer countries do not have the health infrastructure or budgets to commit to vaccine research and development, but they are doing what they can. Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines are among countries that have spent part of their COVID-19 budgets on antimalarial drugs. There is flimsy evidence, at best, to support their effectiveness against the disease.

Photo: Alex Borland

Myanmar sought out help from China, which sent equipment for building laboratories and testing kits. Malaysia flew in a group of experts from Guangdong province who experienced the outbreak when it first developed. In Laos, specialists are using traditional Chinese medicine as one of the methods to treat COVID-19—with some success among patients with mild symptoms.

The United Nations (UN) warned that focusing energies on beating or avoiding coronavirus could have a detrimental impact on child vaccination programmes. It estimated that across almost 70 countries, 80 million children are affected by slowdowns in immunisation programmes.

However, Laos earned praise for being one of the few countries to have continued with its child immunisation programme despite the onset of the coronavirus. Its low number of COVID-19 cases meant its resources have not been stretched as much as others in the region. Furthermore, its government recognised the importance of continuing to provide essential health services during the crisis.

The UN’s warning clarifies the need for effective treatment or vaccines for the coronavirus: thousands more will die if patients are unable or unwilling to vaccinate their children against other illnesses for fear of catching COVID-19.

Research teams still face significant challenges

There are still concerns that those who recover from COVID-19 are not guaranteed immunity from the disease. The question of how to handle the virus “reactivating” is just one of the things research teams around the world must consider. One option is to perhaps test recovered patients for cellular immunity, which determines our ability to fight off infection.

If the coronavirus is similar to dengue fever, for example, and has several different strains, then work to find vaccines could continue for years, perhaps decades to come. In that case, research teams will shift their focus to finding ways to control the virus better and treat its symptoms.

Nevertheless, the world, with Southeast Asia playing its part, is in this fight together. Fight is a more appropriate term to use than race; as Ramscar says, “The analogy of a vaccine race is not helpful, for it implies that who gets there first is also the best.”

A final example is that hospitals in Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand are among those that signed up to the World Health Organisation’s Solidarity Trial. It organised trials of four possible treatments as part of a global initiative.

In time, vaccines and treatments developed in Southeast Asia may feed into programmes such as these. This emphasises again that working together is the only way the coronavirus pandemic might be brought under control, even if it will be a long process.

About the Author

John Pennington
John Pennington is an English freelance writer and a self-published author. He graduated from the University of Warwick with a bachelor’s degree in French and History in 2006. After spending time as a sports journalist, he now writes about politics, history and social affairs.