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Malaysia has the potential to venture into vaccine development in light of the emerging threat from new viruses and diseases. Pic courtesy of Noor Hisham Abdullah FB

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia has the potential to venture into vaccine development in light of the emerging threat from new viruses and diseases.

But limited resources and lack of investment hindered development in this, said Deputy Health Minister Dr Lee Boon Chye.

“Vaccine research can have different entry points. The Institute for Medical Research is already doing some early work on viruses, including isolation of virus and deactivation of virus.

“However, vaccine development at later stages, for example at clinical trials, involves huge investment, and there is significant risk of failure. It also requires sufficient number of patients for trials. Hence, it is not easy.

“Malaysia has the expertise to develop the vaccine. Whoever is investing (in vaccine development) can always build the facilities,” he said yesterday.

He said though the private sector could seek investment to develop vaccines, the manufacturing of existing vaccines could only be done locally if pharmaceutical companies wished to manufacture in Malaysia.

On Feb 13, former member to the United Nations secretary-general’s Scientific Advisory Board, Emeritus Professor Tan Sri Dr Zakri Abdul Hamid, said it was time Malaysia invested in the medical biology sector and research and development in health science.

He said Malaysia was lagging behind as it was dependent on international manufacturers for vaccine supplies and that millions had been spent on importing vaccines when they could be engineered locally.

Consultant paediatrician Datuk Dr Musa Nordin stressed the need for Malaysia to incentivise vaccine manufacturers by setting up plants in the country.

He said this should include vaccines under the National Immunisation Programme, as well as other flu vaccines.

“The flu vaccine is critical for national security. When there was a flu pandemic in 2009, we were short of flu vaccines as they were diverted to high-income countries or countries that have manufacturing plants.”

Dr Musa said vaccine development was expensive and risky.

On average, it takes 10 years from pre-clinical trials (through phases one to three of clinical trials) before it can be certified effective and safe for registration by regulatory bodies.

He acknowledged that Malaysia had the expertise to develop vaccines, but said putting together an infrastructure to research new vaccines could be challenging.

“The investment outlay is too daunting and the pull factor for brilliant minds is wanting. Many of our best brains are researching in cutting edge facilities elsewhere.

“Even the National Institutes of Health (NIH) rely on smart partnerships with multinational corporations,” he said, adding that NIH’s timeline to develop a Covid-19 vaccine assumed that a large pharmaceutical manufacturer would step up to develop the product.

No major pharmaceutical company has come forward yet to manufacture the Covid-19 vaccine being developed by NIH.

Johnson & Johnson announced its interest in developing a vaccine with the United States’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority.

Pharmaceutical companies like Merck and GlaxoSmithKline have aided in public health emergencies. Merck manufactured a vaccine for Ebola that was recently approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration and European regulators.

On the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2002 and 2003, Dr Musa said it took researchers 20 months from the release of the viral genome to the vaccine being ready for human trials.

“It never made it to market because SARS was contained with public health measures.”

World Health Organisation director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, on Tuesday, said the first vaccine for Covid-19 could be ready in 18 months, reported Xinhua news agency.

“There’s a lot we can do to prevent transmission and prepare for any further spread,” he tweeted.

At a press briefing earlier on Tuesday, he said while the world needed investment in research and development, “we also need investment in stopping the Covid-19 outbreak now”.

He said developing vaccines and therapies was an important part of the research agenda.

“We are not defenceless. There are many basic public health interventions that are available to us now, and which can prevent infections now. So we have to do everything today using available weapons to fight this virus, while preparing for the long term.”

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