October 27, 2020

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Thailand rising as biotech and medical hub

In a recent interview, a leading professor at Bangkok’s Mahidol University based at the Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit (MORU) – a collaboration between Oxford and Mahidol Universities and the London-based Wellcome Trust – noted that its activities have spread far beyond Thailand to countries across Asia and Africa.

Now, having pioneered treatments to combat deadly tropical diseases, MORU is enrolling 40,000 frontline healthcare workers as far away as Europe and South America in the only large-scale global clinical trial to test whether the drugs hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine can prevent COVID-19.

Thailand has long been internationally acclaimed as a destination for so-called medical tourists lured by Bangkok’s world-class hospitals. Less well known is an underlying healthcare ecosystem that is helping transform Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy into a much broader medical hub, attracting investors and researchers in biotechnology – including vaccines, genomics, and biopharmaceuticals — as well as high-tech medical devices.

Even as the COVID-19 pandemic has crippled industries in other parts of the world, the nation has recorded investor confidence in Thailand’s healthcare sector. In the first half of 2020, 52 medical-related businesses with projects worth THB13 billion sought approval from Thailand’s Board of Investment (BOI) – a rise of 170 percent in project numbers and 123 percent in value over the same period last year.

In one recent example, South Korea’s largest biotech company partnered with a Thai public-private consortium to establish a manufacturer of oncology drugs and DNA vaccines for cervical cancer. The manufacturer aims to use Thailand as a research and development hub, as well as a production base for Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and Russia.

The region’s medical sector has big potential and many companies want to transfer technology to help it develop further.

Thailand’s success at attracting medical sector investment stems in large part from two key factors.

One is the raft of incentives offered by the BOI to qualifying Thai and foreign-owned companies, including tax breaks of up to 13 years and smart visas that enable expatriate researchers and other key employees and their families to stay in the country for up to four years. Another is Thailand’s track record both in containing the spread of COVID-19 and actively working on vaccines.

Since the pandemic began, Thailand has won international praise for the very low infection rate among its 70 million population. Over the same period, Thailand has also become one of the first middle-income nations to begin clinical trials on a home-developed COVID-19 vaccine.

Separate from the Oxford-Mahidol global trial on hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, Thai universities and biotechnology companies are working on at least three vaccine candidates.

In the most advanced of the vaccine studies, Chulalongkorn University’s Chula Vaccine Research Center is about to begin human trials on a vaccine that has already been tested successfully on mice and monkeys.

Now its COVID-19 vaccine, based on a technology known as mRNA, has attracted international media attention. And if the upcoming human trials prove successful, the team hopes to work with manufacturers in Thailand, North America, and Germany to produce 30 million vaccine doses to supply Thailand and six other Asian countries.

The team at MORU is also collaborating with a second Chulalongkorn study in which a leading expert and doctor at the Thai Red Cross Emerging Infectious Disease Health Science Center, working with a spinoff from the university’s faculty of pharmaceutical sciences, has developed a potential vaccine that uses a different technology derived from plant protein.

The MORU professor stated that in terms of a hub for international collaboration, Thailand is very good. COVID-19 has shown that the world is a very small place. Countries cannot just look inwards and Thailand has the vision to understand the importance of global health as well as national health, he concluded.