Thailand enters global race for vaccine with trials on monkeys

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A laboratory monkey interacting with an employee in the breeding center for cynomolgus macaques (longtail macaques) at the National Primate Research Center of Thailand at Chulalongkorn University in Saraburi. (AFP/Mladen Antonov)
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After conclusive results on mice, Thai scientists from the center have begun testing a COVID-19 novel coronavirus vaccine candidate on monkeys, the phase before human trials. (AFP/Mladen Antonov)
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Updated 25 May 2020

Thailand enters global race for vaccine with trials on monkeys

  • More than 100 candidate vaccines are currently in various stages of development around the world
  • The testing phase on the macaque monkeys came after trials on mice were successful

SARABURI, Thailand: Thailand is conducting tests on macaque monkeys as it races to produce a cheaper, alternative coronavirus vaccine it hopes will be ready by 2021, a top researcher said Monday.
More than 100 candidate vaccines are currently in various stages of development around the world, at least eight of which are in clinical trials with humans, according to the World Health Organization.
Oxford University researchers are considered the frontrunners in the race, starting clinical trials last month on a version based on a different virus that causes infections in chimpanzees.
Dr. Suchinda Malaivitjitnond, director of the National Primate Research Center of Thailand who oversaw Saturday’s vaccine injections to an initial group of 13 monkeys, said she hoped a “Made in Thailand” vaccine would be cheaper than a European or American drug.
The testing phase on the macaque monkeys came after trials on mice were successful, researchers said.
They are working in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania in the US using a new technology based on mRNA, a type of genetic material never before used to make a vaccine.
The process entails injecting a short sequence of viral genetic material to trigger an immune response by producing proteins acting against the virus.
At least two other companies — pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and US-based Moderna — are developing vaccines using the same technology, with the latter reporting positive preliminary results last week from clinical trials.
Thailand was the first country outside of China to detect an infection in mid-January but has so far reported just over 3,000 cases and 57 deaths.
If the tests on the macaques go well, human trials should start in October, said Dr. Kiat Ruxrungtham, chair of the Chula Vaccine Research Center at Chulalongkorn University.
“Our dream is that low- and middle-income countries should not stay a buyer for our whole lives.”


Tech-savvy Indonesians go off-grid to help to remote villages fight virus

Updated 15 min 24 sec ago

Tech-savvy Indonesians go off-grid to help to remote villages fight virus

  • Young volunteers tackle tough terrain, pandemic myths in isolated northern region

JAKARTA: A group of tech-savvy young locals in Indonesia’s northern North Halmahera regency is spreading awareness about the dangers of COVID-19 in remote corners of the archipelago at a time when bureaucracy has impeded a rapid response to the pandemic.

The Relawan Merah Putih, or Red and White Volunteers, includes a multimedia expert, university students, lecturers, civil servants and a web developer in Tobelo, the main city of North Halmahera in North Maluku province, about 2,500 km from the capital Jakarta.

The city is located on Halmahera island, part of the Maluku Islands, Indonesia’s fabled Spice Islands on the northeastern part of the sprawling archipelago.

Stevie Recaldo Karimang, a 28-year-old freelance photographer and videographer, told Arab News that he set up the group after social restrictions introduced to counter the pandemic put him out of business. 

He quickly developed a website on the pandemic and created online flyers and audiovisual materials that he and 31 other volunteers distributed on social media platforms and messaging apps to educate the public about the pandemic soon after the first cases in Indonesia were confirmed in Jakarta in early March.

“We translated the information we took from the national COVID-19 task force into the market language spoken here, which is a mixture of Indonesian and the local dialect, to make it more understandable for the locals,” Karimang said.

The group also used a drone to issue public warnings against mass gatherings.

“The drone helped to remind people not to form a crowd when social restrictions were enforced. We attached a flashlight to the device to catch the crowd’s attention, and we were able to dismiss such gatherings.”

But the volunteers shifted their efforts to rural areas after the first coronavirus case in North Maluku province was confirmed on March 23.

Jubhar Mangimbulude, a microbiology expert at Halmahera University and the group’s adviser, said the team had visited 30 isolated villages out of 196 townships in the regency, which is home to 161 million people.

“We reached one village after hours of driving over rough terrain. We have to use four-wheel-drive vehicles because along the way we may have to cross a river where the bridge is damaged,” he told Arab News.

Mangimbulude said that many villagers were unaware of the pandemic and only knew from TV that a dangerous virus was spreading quickly and infecting people. He was glad to find that no COVID-19 cases had been detected among the villagers.

But he acknowledged that misinformation was rife and said that he had to debunk myths about “how alcohol could be used to prevent the disease.”

“The villagers heard that the virus can be killed with heat in one’s body, and since drinking alcohol can warm the body, they encouraged their children and elders to drink a local alcoholic beverage made of fermented sugar palm fruit,” Mangimbulude said.

Fellow volunteer Oscar Berthomene, a local civil servant, said that the group was able to move faster than the regency administration whose bureaucracy slowed down the response to the pandemic.

“I have support from my supervisor, and we were able to help their activities with cars to allow them to move around,” he told Arab News.

The regency has about 18 percent of the 953 cases in the province, which make up about 1.5 percent of the national total of 62,142 as of Saturday.