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Indonesia Steps Up in COVID-19 Vaccine Race

Lab workers in the Bandung BioFarma facility in Indonesia examine vials that have vaccine vial monitor technology incorporated into their labels, in Bandung, Indonesia, February 2017. (U. Kartoglu/PATH)
Lab workers in the Bandung BioFarma facility in Indonesia examine vials that have vaccine vial monitor technology incorporated into their labels, in Bandung, Indonesia, February 2017. (U. Kartoglu/PATH)

Indonesia is set to move into the front ranks of countries pursuing a vaccine against the coronavirus next week with the launch of phase 3 clinical trials in Bandung, West Java.

About 2,400 samples of an experimental vaccine have been shipped from China to Bandung for the trial, which will begin August 3. The vaccine, developed by the Chinese biopharmaceutical firm Sinovac Biotech, is one of only five out of 166 candidates to have reached such an advanced stage of testing.

An American entrant in the race for a vaccine, developed by Moderna, entered phase 3 trials in the United States on Monday.

Phase 3 testing involves giving a vaccine to thousands of volunteers to see how many become infected, compared with others who are given a placebo.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi announced the Bandung plan in a virtual press conference last week, saying the project is directed in Indonesia by the state-owned pharmaceutical holding company Bio Farma. The firm’s CEO, Honesti Basyir, said the clinical trial is scheduled to run for six months and will be completed by January 2021.

She said Bio Farma expects to distribute 40 million doses of the vaccine per year as soon as the government authorizes its widespread usage and plans to expand distribution to 250 million doses per year.

Bio Farma chose Sinovac Biotech as a partner because the manufacturing method used by the Chinese company matches the competencies of Bio Farma, which has already developed similar vaccines, such as one for the respiratory disease pertussis, or whooping cough.

Retno said the partnership with Sinovac Biotech is one of multiple initiatives that Indonesia is taking to find an effective vaccine.

She said Indonesia is working closely with Genexine, a South Korean biopharmaceutical firm, to develop a DNA-based vaccine. The foreign minister said Indonesia’s ambassador in South Korea, Umar Hadi, has facilitated the cooperation between Indonesia’s Kalbe Farma and Genexine.

“Genexine has held its first phase clinical trial in South Korea and it will last until this August. The second phase will be held in Indonesia on September or October,” Retno said.

Daniel Tumpal Simanjuntak, the Indonesian foreign ministry’s director for Africa, said details of that trial are still under discussion.

“We still don't have any information on how many vaccine samples will be sent to undergo the second phase of clinical trials in Indonesia, as well as other arrangements,” Tumpal said.

Indonesia is coordinating its vaccine efforts with the Oslo, Norway-based Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness and Innovation (CEPI), which is funded by philanthropies, civil society organizations and several national governments.

CEPI was founded in 2017 to accelerate the development of vaccines against emerging infectious diseases and ensure equitable access for all. Bio Farma is already on CEPI’s list of producers that will potentially produce a COVID-19 vaccine.

Retno said Indonesia will work to make sure that any vaccine that is proved safe and effective will become widely available.

“At every international meeting, Indonesia continued to reiterate the need to maintain equitable and affordable access to COVID-19 vaccine,” she said. “When a vaccine has been developed or the drugs currently undergoing clinical trials have been acquired, the next question is whether all countries have access to the vaccines and medicine at affordable rates.”

Retno emphasized that Indonesia has been discussing the effort to develop a COVID-19 vaccine with 11 countries, 12 international organizations and 97 NGOs.

As of Monday, Indonesia had more than 100,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and had suffered more than 4,800 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracking site in the United States.