Thailand has the potential and readiness to become the leader of vaccine production in ASEAN, National Vaccine Institute (NVI) director Charung Muangchana told The Nation in an exclusive interview.
"I'm confident Thailand can become the vaccine hub in the ASEAN region because we have high calibre researchers and vaccine developers, as well as more than 50 agencies working in the field of vaccine research and development," he said.
Thai personnel could effectively compete with other countries - but the problem that hampered vaccine development was officials being slow to propel the policy forward into action, he said.
Neighbouring countries such as Indonesia and Vietnam had started to pass Thailand, he said. Many key projects in Thailand were not backed while the flu vaccine factory project had been shelved. Small problems caused officials to pause before making decisions or acting. This had led to loss of opportunities.
The world vaccine market grew from US$5 billion (S$6.37 billion) in 2000 to $24 billion last year and was expected to reach US$100 billion by 2025.
The World Health Organisation's (WHO) analyses found the fast growth was due to factors such as existing communicable diseases that still ravaged many countries - and new emerging threats.
Medical and public health groups say immunisation by vaccination is more effective in stopping diseases.
Currently, about 80 per cent of the world's vaccine market is split among European manufacturers such as Glaxo Smith Kline (23 per cent), Sanofi Pasteur (17 per cent), Pfizer (13 per cent), Merck (12 per cent), Novartis (13 per cent), Sanofi Pasteur-MSD (4 per cent).
The rest were from various countries. WHO and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimated that, by 2020, vaccine manufacturers in developing countries would be able to produce vaccines for domestic use and possibly have the potential to compete in the world's market.
Key vaccine manufacturers in developing countries included those from India, China, South Korea, Indonesia, Brazil, Cuba and Mexico. There were more than 120 vaccines in the pipeline and about 60 vaccines deemed to be important for developing countries.
DTP MoU 'went nowhere'
Charung said a memorandum of understanding for a diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine (DTP) was signed with France during the Yingluck Shinawatra administration. That project went nowhere because officials didn't dare proceed and lost the opportunity after doubting if it would materialise.
Another issue delaying vaccine development was that, despite all the Thai government's support for vaccine as a tool for disease prevention, the activity's small profit - |compared to the huge investment capital - prompted most manufacturers to produce vaccines for financially strong countries for domestic use.
Thailand can produce two vaccines from scratch while producing eight vaccines by using ready-made cell culture, he said.
The basic vaccine was established by the Thai Public Health Ministry for all Thai children to prevent some 10 communicable diseases such as tuberculosis, hepatitis B, polio, DTP, and Japanese encephalitis (JE).
Charung said the vaccine procurement budget has increased annually and last year the figure was at Bt5 billion (S$197 million) (from both public and private sectors).
As for normal vaccine usage, Thailand, being a developing country with a middle earning level, did not get much help in case of vaccine shortages because various organisations focused on poor countries, he explained.
With the vaccine market having a small number of suppliers, buying or importing vaccines might cause a lack of vaccine security, he added.
In 2005 when the National Vaccine Plan 2 was announced, NVI was given 10 times more budget for the first time.
NVI thus joined with allies inside and outside the country to formulate a "Vaccine Agenda" strategy for the next 10 years, including developing personnel, vaccine research promotion, and technology transfer, he said.
Charung said Thailand should in future push for necessary vaccines - such as for rotavirus-triggered diarrhoea or hepatitis A, dengue fever and human papillomavirus (HPV) - to be part of the national immunisation plan.
Thailand hosted the ASEAN vaccine conference this month in Phuket to propose for co-operation to strengthen the region's vaccine market, he said.
He hoped the Thai government and operative officials would support attempts to achieve the goal of supporting local manufacturers so Thailand could produce quality vaccines for domestic use and import them to other countries.
Obstacles to the country's vaccine development were many and included the capital, the need for related agencies' work integration, for operative policy officials' support in infrastructure development and research, and the need for Thai executives to support domestically produced vaccine usage.
In the first phase, local vaccine makers need to sell their products every year to survive, he said. He didn't want the public to view this as a monopoly action but each time a domestically-made vaccine is bought it would create benefit for the country and boost its capacity in vaccine making.