Covid 19 Vaccines in Thailand
This article describes an amazing story of self-sufficiency: how Thailand has managed to develop six different Covid 19 vaccines in a very short time. This story describes how the Thai Government, The Royal Family, the Universities and private companies are working together to benefit the nation, three of these are using new technology developed in Thailand.
This article is based on a previous article published in The Chemical Engineer, April 2021.1 This article is updated and contains additional information specific to Covid 19.
Thailand is a developing country in the Asean Region of SE Asia with a population of 66 million. There are also several million migrant workers from Myanmar and Cambodia working in food processing and construction and there are now about 100,000 refugees from the fighting in Myanmar being looked after in several camps in Thailand.
Thailand is also a globally-renowned wellness hub and has attracted millions of foreign patients in previous years. Its public healthcare is highly rated and out of 195 countries, Thailand was ranked fifth in the world – and first in Asia – on the Global Health Security Index in December 2021.2
The Thai Government
Thailand was the forerunner among low-middle income countries in setting a National Health Security Office (NHSO) to ensure Universal Health Coverage (UHC). This involves a national strategic policy and action plan for vaccine security, in which all Thai people should have equal access to quality vaccines at no cost to the patient.
Thailand has a National Vaccine Committee (NVC) which was established by the National Vaccine Security Act 2018. It is chaired by the Prime Minister, vice-chaired by the Minister of Health and has representatives from relevant government agencies as well as invited experts in related fields
The NVC has established the “National strategic policy and action plan for vaccine security” as a master plan, aimed for supporting the national vaccine security and self-reliance program, in which all Thai people should be able to have equal access to quality vaccines.
The national strategic policy and action plan for the vaccine security has four major aspects;3
- to increase effective management system for sustainable supplies of vaccines
- to support and networking on vaccine research and development, production, and regulatory control
- to enhance and strengthen domestic vaccine industry in all aspects; from research and development to marketing.
- to support vaccine-related resources management, which includes human resource development, knowledge transfer, financing of infrastructure, and enhance networking
The Department of Disease Control (DDC) under the Ministry of Health are responsible for managing the Covid-19 pandemic including liaison with the organisations described below who are developing the vaccines.
At the time of writing Thailand has administered about 110 million doses of Covid 19 vaccine and about 70% are fully vaccinated , the rate is about 375,000 doses per day. So far most of the population have received either the inactivated Sinovac vaccine purchased from China or the AstraZeneca vaccine made in Thailand. The Thai Government has recognised that continued vaccinations for Covid 19 will play a very important role in the future public health plan and so Thailand is greatly increasing its capacity to make vaccines within in the country.
The following section describe the different organisations in this story who are making vaccines in Thailand starting with the Government organisations , then the organisations linked to the Royal Family, then the Universities, then the private companies.
In 1966, the Thai Government founded The Government Pharmaceutical Organization (GPO) in Bangkok. GPO is the largest pharmaceutical producer and distributor in Thailand and is a typical medium sized (by western standards) pharmaceutical production company in the ASEAN region.
Nowadays the company has three major sites: headquarters in the centre of Bangkok; Rangsit Pharmaceutical Production Plant 1 in the northern outskirts of Bangkok; and the Vaccine Manufacturing Factory located 100 km north of the capital in the central Saraburi province.
The team at the vaccine facility in Saraburi have developed an egg-based Covid-19 vaccine based on their previous well developed influenza technology. They received assistance from Texas University through the PATH scheme. PATH is a centre for vaccine innovation supported by WHO.4 The Covid-19 vaccine consists of a Newcastle disease virus genetically modified to make a spike protein found on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. This approach is important because this virus grows very well in eggs and the vaccine can be produced using established egg-based technology. virus vaccine pipeline.
The GPO COVID 19 vaccine is currently undergoing clinical trials in Thailand managed by the Faculty of Tropical Medicine at Mahidol University (see below). Phase 1 is complete with good results. Now clinical trial phase 2 is in progress and clinical trial phase 3 is about to start. GPO expects to get EU approval in Q3-2022. The plant can make 100,000 doses of covid 19 vaccine per day.
In 2021 GPO Saraburi was the winner of the ISPE FOYA in the category of social impact. More information about this is given in.5
This is a joint venture between the Government Pharmaceutical Organization (GPO) and Sanofi and is called GPO Merieux Biological Products Co (GPO-MBP) to make vaccines, especially children's vaccines for the Thai population.
In the middle of last year, GPO-MBP started discussions with the Chinese company Sinovac about providing a large supply of vaccine but there was a conflict of interest because GPO-MBP is 49% owned by Sanofi. The contract was handed over to GPO who have finalised the deals for millions of doses of Sinovac already delivered and administered.
GPO-MBP have made available fill-finish capacity for 5 million vials (20 million doses) for immediate use by any of the companies in Thailand when they have drug substance ready for fill-finish. Currently one vial is 4 doses of Covid 19 vaccine.
Thai Red Cross
The Thai Red Cross have a long history with vaccine manufacture going back over 30 years. The Thai Red Cross was established in 1893 and is supported by the Thai Royal Family. They make BCG vaccine, both drug substance and drug product. They are the only manufacturer of this vaccine in the ASEAN region and they distribute to the Region. They also produce rabies vaccine and snake antivenoms for national distribution.
Siam Bioscience is a biopharmaceuticals manufacturer founded in 2009 through the King’s Fund, which was set up by the late King Rama IX to improve the health and wellbeing of the people.
In April 2020 AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford announced an agreement for the global development and distribution of recombinant adenovirus vaccine aimed at preventing COVID-19 infection from SARS-CoV-2.6 AstraZeneca licenced 25 companies around the world to use its technology. One of these companies is Siam Bioscience in Bangkok, Thailand. AstraZeneca audited Siam Bioscience during the 2nd quarter of 2020 and the audit covered issues relating to anti-bribery, anti-corruption, supply chain security, human rights and financial health. The audit was reported in the Bangkok Post and the article also describes the debate in Parliament about sourcing vaccine for the emergency.7
The non-replicating viral vector AZ COVID 19 vaccine produced by Siam Bioscience was approved by WHO on 11 October 2021 and they have produced 60 million batches since then which have been given to the Thai population.
The National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA)
NSTDA was established in 1991 under the National Science and Technology Development Act 1991. The agency is affiliated to the Ministry of Higher Education, Science, Research and Innovation. NSTDA have a National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (BIOTEC) who have developed live-attenuated nasal spray vaccines for influenza. They have used this technology to develop a Nasal Covid vaccine with Adenovirus vector platform. Animal testing was performed in Q4 2021 and development is ongoing.
Faculty of Tropical Medicine at Mahidol University
It is important to mention the Faculty of Tropical Medicine at Mahidol University and Professor Sir Nick White who arrived in Thailand from Oxford University 40 years ago to develop treatments for malaria and snake bites. His team at the Faculty of Tropical Medicine at Mahidol University have carried out large scale clinical trials notably for HIV treatments and have been at the forefront of research into vaccines for Dengue and Zika viruses and they unravelled the genome for the Zika virus. Professor Punnee at the Faculty is the project leader for the clinical trial of GPO COVID 19 vaccine. The data about the trials of the GPO vaccine is given in.8
Chulalongkorn University at its Chula Vaccine Research Center have developed an mRNA vaccine called ChulaCov 19 in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania.
The vaccine has been successful in animal studies and in Phase I/II trials in 2021 and will enter Phase II/III trials in 2022. ChulaVRC is partnering with BioNet-Asia (see below) for Industrial scale production. BioNet is upscaling the production process to manufacture million doses per year.
Chulalongkorn and Baiya Phytopharm
Baiya Phytofarm was founded in 2018 as a spin-off company from Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences. They have developed a protein expression platform which provides a quick, simple, and scalable platform for biopharma industry aiming to replace biotech’s biotech’s conventional fermenter with plants. Baiya SARS-CoV Vax 1 is developed using bacteria from plant leaves and has been tested on mice and monkeys. The results show that the vaccine boosts the level of neutralizing antibodies in the vaccinated animals effectively after just two doses. Phase I trials started on in September 2021 and are ongoing.9
BioNet is a French-Thai biotech firm that focuses on manufacturing genetically engineered vaccines. BioNet was founded in 2001 and has been producing recombinant pertussis vaccines and developing a DNA technology platform especially for Zika and Dengue viruses.
BioNet Partnership with University of Sydney and Technovalia
The DNA knowledge from BioNet has enabled rapid development of a DNA-based vaccine called Covigen. A consortium of BioNet, the University of Sydney and Melbourne-based biotech company Technovalia have started a Phase I trial in Australia with the support of the Australian government’s Medical Research Future Fund. This trial does not involve needle injections. The needle-free DNA vaccine penetrates the skin via an injector using a narrow stream of fluid that goes through the skin in about 0.1 seconds. This delivery allows the vaccine to enter the cells, which then triggers an immune system response.
BioNet Partnership with the universities of Chulalongkorn and Pennsylvania
The mRNA vaccine, Chula-Cov19 developed by Chula Vaccine Research Centre described above is now being produced at BioNet’s manufacturing facility north of Bangkok in Thailand.
In 2021, BioNet started a collaboration with BIA Separations, now part of Sartorius, a bio-chromatography development and manufacturing company, resulting in the successful development of an optimized messenger RNA (mRNA) production process which is high-yield, reproducible, scalable, and fast. A one-time plasmid DNA (pDNA) production campaign can be used for producing a million doses of purified mRNA and the entire process lasts a few days.
Both BioNet and BIA are now working together on other universal coronavirus vaccine projects aiming to increase development capabilities and production capacity of nucleic acid vaccines in Australia, Europe, and low-middle income countries.10
Vaccines have a strong foundation in Thailand. I quote Sir Nick White of Mahido “University, “Thailand punches above its weight in clinical medical research. It has very good academic standards and has created a milieu that prizes innovation, creativity and knowledge,”
The strong foundation of the established healthcare system and an administration based on collective scientific foundations has enabled the impressive development of domestic vaccines and the opportunity for Thailand to help its neighbours in the region.
- 3“National strategic policy and action plan for the vaccine security,” National Vaccine Institute, 10 September 2019. Available: http://nvi.go.th/index.php/files/large/b5966ec4e02d15c.
Thanks to Boonrak Thawornrungroaj, Managing Director of GPO-MBP who agreed to speak to the author for this article and provided much of the current information. Thanks also to Hong Thai, the CEO of Bionet Asia who reviewed the parts related to Bionet.