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As the 75th World Health Assembly draws to a conclusion, one of the key messages in the area of global pandemic preparedness has been the need to diversify vaccine manufacturing across emerging economies. Cooperation in the development of vaccines has become all the more necessary as we consider the desire for global health security and sufficient vaccine supply for both pandemics and routine immunizations across all regions. Under this context it has been interesting to see how vaccine cooperation between China and the rest of Asia has evolved.
Throughout 2021, China delivered vaccines through direct bilateral distribution, with almost two-thirds of a total of 1.58 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines delivered to Asian countries, the most out of any continent. Gradually, China’s shifted its focus towards fill-to-finish projects and vaccine technology transfer, marking the start of more sustainable partnerships. This was implemented quickly within the region, an attribute to Asia’s growing desire and capacity for vaccine R&D and production. With China’s expanding cooperation within the region, it is crucial to understand how this could open doors to developing vaccine R&D around the region and beyond.
Figure 1: Monthly regional deliveries of Chinese COVID-19 Vaccines
Asia’s growing capacity for vaccine R&D and production
With the experience of the SARS outbreak back in 2003, Asia has been drawing investments into building healthcare and pharmaceutical infrastructures. Based on an analysis by The Economist in 2018, the expected growth CAGR in pharmaceutical spending by countries in Asia up to 2022 is projected to be 7.63%, much higher than the average of 4.81% across 2013 to 2017. The significant increase highlights Asia’s willingness to expand their pharmaceutical sector, thus presenting attractive opportunities for foreign companies to enter the region, whether that be through building vaccine manufacturing capacity in Southeast Asia, or dedicating resources for R&D and preparedness in East Asia. In some countries, this also reflects a desire to assume more regional leadership in global health, especially through collaborating with international organizations such as Gavi the Vaccine Alliance, COVAX, the International Vaccine Institute, GPEI (Global Polio Eradication Initiative), CEPI (Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations) and more.
Figure 2: Countries in Asia actual and projected average compound annual growth in pharmaceutical spending (US$)
Regional cooperation in vaccine R&D between China and Asia
Looking ahead to developing vaccine cooperation outside of vaccine deliveries, Chinese President Xi Jinping first proposed the six-point Global Vaccine Cooperation Action Initiative back in October 2021 during an address to the 16th G20 Leaders’ summit. He emphasized on strengthening vaccine R&D cooperation and support vaccine companies in conducting joint R&D and production.
In response to this, multiple Chinese companies and institutions quickly formed significant partnerships with their Asian counterparts. The swift and effective collaboration helps to sustain a timely and improved accessibility to vaccines around the region and some of these collaborations are illustrated below.
1. Bilateral cooperation in vaccine distribution
While China has reduced the amount of vaccine distribution from the country, cooperation in vaccine distribution is crucial for helping Asia grow to achieve self-sustainability as a region for countries that may not have the proper infrastructure.
|Country||Collaborator||Bilateral cooperation in vaccine distributions|
|Indonesia||Sinovac / Bio Farma||Licensed state-owned Bio Farma to produce CoronaVac and act as a production hub within the region, with anticipated production of 250 million doses per year.|
|Malaysia||Sinovac / Pharmaniaga Berhad||Licensed to be the main distributor for Omicron-specific vaccine within the region, hence increasing accessibility of vaccines for countries within Asia.|
2. Joint production and vaccine R&D partnerships
Joint productions and R&D partnerships are also becoming increasingly common as part of China’s shift to sustainable forms of vaccine cooperation.
|Country||Collaborator||Joint Productions and Vaccine R&D Partnerships|
|Myanmar||Sinopharm / Ministry of Industry||Joint production of Sinopharm’s COVID-19 vaccines in Myanmar to enhance Myanmar’s vaccine production capacity and fulfill local vaccination demand.|
|Malaysia||CanSino / Solution Biologics||Joint production of CanSino with local company Solution Biologics to produce 3-6 million doses per month.|
|Japan||WestVac Biopharma / Nagasaki University||Vaccine R&D partnership to conduct clinical trials and apply for Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) in Japan for WestVac’s recombinant COVID-19 (sf9) vaccine.|
Some other private sector investments in R&D for further vaccine R&D in Asian countries are also worth mentioning, such as YishengBio’s acquisition of Singapore’s NewBiomed for the PIKA adjuvant technology. This propelled their R&D capabilities forward to utilize the novel technology and develop multiple vaccines such as the current PIKA recombinant COVID-19 vaccine.
With the exponential growth of vaccine R&D in these countries, no doubt the region has significant potential to achieve and sustain vaccine self-sufficiency, providing further contributions towards the global healthcare agenda. Henceforth, the door is now wide open for countries to strengthen cooperation and lay hold of the opportunities that lie ahead, working towards a robust infrastructure and network for the current and future pandemics.