Thailand says a local laboratory's pact with Britain's AstraZeneca will make the Southeast Asian country the regional hub for supplies of what's likely to be one of the leading vaccines against COVID-19 as governments scramble to lock in supplies.
Bangkok-based Siam Bioscience signed a letter of intent with AstraZeneca late last month to make 200 million doses of the British pharmaceutical firm's COVID-19 vaccine, AZD1222, said Nakorn Premsri, director of Thailand's National Vaccine Institute.
Thailand's Public Health Ministry and the local conglomerate SCG, with its packaging and chemicals divisions, also joined the deal.
Nakorn said most of the doses would head abroad.
"Thailand will secure only 26 million doses. We may ask for more, but it will not be a big part, so maybe more than half of that [200 million] can be exported," he told VOA.
"It's in the letter of intent that we made together with Siam Bioscience, AstraZeneca, SCG and Ministry of Public Health that it will be distributed within the ASEAN region," he added, referring to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
In a brief statement to VOA, AstraZeneca's Thailand office confirmed the broad outlines of its plans.
"The Ministry of Public Health, SCG, Siam Bioscience and AstraZeneca share the focus on broad, equitable and timely access to an effective COVID-19 vaccine in Thailand and Southeast Asia region. AstraZeneca has been working with Siam Bioscience through technology transfer to expand AZD1222’s global manufacturing capacity," it said.
AstraZeneca's vaccine, developed in collaboration with Britain's Oxford University, is still pending approval in Britain. Officials there say regulators could reach a decision by early January.
In the mix
Nakorn said AstraZeneca has already started sharing the technology Siam Bioscience will need to make its vaccine and that production could begin in the second quarter of next year. If all goes well, he said, inoculations could start by the middle of the year.
Because those taking AstraZeneca's vaccine will need two doses each, the 26 million jabs Thailand has reserved will be enough for 13 million people, about a fifth of the country's population. How the rest of the doses are rolled out across Southeast Asia, a region of over 650 million people, will be up to the British firm, said Nakorn.
A few other ASEAN countries besides Thailand have already announced plans to source vaccine from AstraZeneca, but it's not clear how many of their doses will be arriving via Siam Bioscience.
AstraZeneca's Thailand office refused VOA's request for an interview.
COVID-19's toll on the region has been mixed.
Despite reporting the first case outside of China, in mid-January, Thailand has managed to keep a lid on the pandemic, thanks to tight border controls, with only 4,281 cases and 60 deaths recorded to date. Laos, Cambodia and tiny Brunei have all reported well under 1,000 cases each.
Others have fared much worse.
The Philippines and Indonesia have recorded over 450,000 and 640,000 cases, respectively, the most in Southeast Asia. Malaysia and Myanmar are in the midst of their worst waves of infection yet, with well over 1,000 new cases a day.
Countries in the region are not waiting for the AstraZeneca-Siam Bioscience pact for deliverance, though.
Some of them have announced plans or deals to source from a combination of suppliers including U.S. pharmaceutical leaders Moderna and Pfizer, whose COVID-19 vaccines have already been approved by Washington. A few say they plan to pad their stocks with vaccines from China and Russia as well.
Six ASEAN members have also signed up to COVAX, a global plan co-led by the World Health Organization for rich countries to help buy doses of COVID-19 vaccine for the poorest.
Pros and cons
Still, AstraZeneca's plans to turn Thailand into a regional production hub is a boon for the country's neighbors, said Khor Swee Kheng, a global health specialist and independent consultant to the WHO based in Malaysia.
With this deal, "Southeast Asia has greater assurance of vaccine supplies in a global race that is currently dominated by rich countries." he said.
"Two, production facilities that are physically nearer to Southeast Asian countries will aid in logistics. Three, this arrangement can be leveraged for further Southeast Asian collaboration in regional vaccine manufacturing and stockpiling."
AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine also has the advantage of holding on to its potency for at least six months in a standard refrigerator. That compares with about one month for Moderna's offering and only a few days for Pfizer's. For most of its time, Pfizer's vaccine must be stored at an ultra-cold minus 70 Celsius.
As countries shop for vaccines, Khor said that gives AZD1222 an edge in tropical countries and those with limited cold storage facilities, though he added that governments will also be weighing safety, efficacy, availability and price.
Farming out production also raises its own hurdles.
"Regulatory approval for the vaccine produced by Siam Bioscience depends on a few variables,” said Khor.
“One, how much of the production process is done in Thailand in Siam Bioscience facilities versus AstraZeneca facilities? Two, how much technology transfer and patent transfers have occurred between AstraZeneca and Siam Bioscience? This information is not yet available publicly."
If Siam Bioscience takes on much of the burden, regulatory bodies may insist on approval of not only AstraZeneca's work but separately of its Thai partner's contributions as well.