Why Thailand will fare better long-term in the war against Covid-19
Internationally lauded and recognised as one of the most successful countries in curbing the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic, Thailand has once again received the spotlight over how its public healthcare sector rises to the occasion. To those not familiar with the healthcare situation in the Land of Smiles, they might be surprised to learn that Thailand is a globally-renowned wellness hub attracting millions of foreign patients each year. In addition to several leading private hospitals, its public healthcare is among the top rated countries in the world, with Thailand ranked sixth-best healthcare provider in 2019, according to US magazine CEOWORLD.
It is therefore no exaggeration to say that Thailand is performing well for the health of its people, who are entitled to universal health coverage. This strong foundation in healthcare system and administration based on collective scientific foundations has proven particularly beneficial in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, when a technology transfer deal was sealed between AstraZeneca and Thai biopharmaceutical facility Siam Bioscience, with the support from the Ministry of Public Health and the National Vaccine Institute (NVI).
“What a lot of people do not know is that we were actually evaluated and handpicked by AstraZeneca by the existing capability, to produce its Covid-19 vaccine in the country, among a few other selected countries worldwide,” said Dr. Nakorn Premsri, Director of the National Vaccine Institute (NVI). “Siam Bioscience, with its expertise in protein research development and large scale manufacturing, was considered scientifically qualified and capable of mass-producing the vaccine.”
This reflects Thailand’s firm foundation in healthcare practice, and the domestic production of biopharmaceutical products will mean manifold benefits, Dr. Nakorn explained.
“The deal is an upstream vaccine manufacturing technology transfer where our scientists will be involved in every process, instead of only mixing the ingredients or filling the doses. It is superior to simply buying a vaccine, as this way will allow us to acquire cutting-edge technologies at no cost, with enhanced our capacity to develop other vaccines in the future. Most importantly, it is in line with our policy of sustainability in making long-term national vaccine security.”
Moreover, it is noteworthy that the AstraZeneca technology transfer deal is seen among other tremendous efforts.
“We have explored many possibilities from day one, including conducting our own vaccine research to achieve maximum sustainability, seeking collaborations with many vaccine developers to gain technology transfer, and negotiating advance purchase of vaccine with several dealers,” Director Nakorn added.
The auspicious news not only indicates reasonable development prospects but also manifests the great efficiency of the Thai healthcare system.
Dr. Nakorn explained: “Our healthcare services utilise a more systematic approach developed over decades, so that they function well in both normal and emergency circumstances.”
“We have a balance of power between management and academics with many players, that cooperate to help drive public health advancement in every step, from research and development, production, quality assessment, safety assurance to policy decision-making, measure implementation, legalities, and budget allocation.”
“The collective intelligence enables our country to respond quickly and effectively to emerging epidemics, from past incidents such as avian flu and MERS to the current Covid-19, with a globally recognised lower incidence of infection.”
Currently, besides the national team orchestrating the battle against Covid-19, a number of subcommittees comprising experts across various fields have been formed to consider and follow up with the plan and make it as comprehensive as possible. All the vaccines to be distributed to the public are guaranteed categorical safety assurance by Thai FDA.
Sustainable development in public health and medical sectors has always been at the forefront of national attention, with the government of Thailand reported to spend as much as 4.6% of the country’s GDP on healthcare, the highest among ASEAN countries.
“Ironically,” Dr. Nakorn continued, “our cumulative development has placed us in a somewhat peculiar situation.”
”At the onset of the outbreak, while we were pulling out all the stops [to fight the virus], by funding development of our own vaccine and collaborating with international authorities to negotiate vaccine acquisition, many vaccine developers had actually contacted us to do a third-phase efficacy trial in Thailand. This is due to the fact that we are well-known for our past successes in conducting large-scale clinical trials, including Hepatitis A vaccine, Dengue vaccine, and the famous HIV vaccine trial in 2003 with a sizeable sample of over 16,000 people.”
“‘However, this is not the case with the Covid-19 vaccine phase 3 trial because Thailand has an exceptionally minimal spread with a very low number of cases, which means a comparison between a vaccinated group and a control group isn’t possible.”
Dr. Nakorn admitted that with the country’s limited resources, an emphasis on long-term sustainability is of paramount importance and has proven effective over the decades, including with the current epidemic.
“Because of our strong foundation and fastidious healthcare operation, we planned to achieve an ambitious goal of 50% vaccine coverage by 2021. The plan is not solely based on the AstraZeneca vaccine; we are mitigating possible risks with continuous, flexible negotiations to have the most appropriate deals. We are also securing early doses of the Sinovac vaccine which was developed according to a traditional approach using dead viruses and therefore comes with more availability of information about its safety profile.”
”The vaccine effort in Thailand is based on a scientific approach specific to the country’s circumstances which has yielded satisfactory results both in the past and present, and will eventually lead to sustainable growth in the long term.”
Dr. Nakorn concluded: “It is critical to note that the acquisition of Covid-19 vaccines and technology know-how is no miracle drug. To truly end the spread of Covid-19 requires both the vaccine and the already implemented and well-received policies of social distancing, mask wearing, and hand washing.We must not lose sight of the fact that without the existing preventive measures, the vaccine alone cannot be successful.”