JAKARTA/HANOI -- Vaccine diplomacy by China and the U.S. has entered a new stage as their drugmakers transfer technology to players in Southeast Asia to kick-start local production.
The region has welcomed these efforts, since it provides a greater boost to the pharmaceutical industry there and creates more jobs than shipments of ready-for-use coronavirus jabs. Some companies have even begun testing vaccines in Southeast Asia that have yet to receive authorization in the countries in which they were produced.
Etana Biotechnologies Indonesia will start producing mRNA vaccines -- the same type developed by Pfizer and Moderna -- in July, Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, Indonesia's coordinating minister of maritime affairs and investment, announced last month.
Etana is receiving technological assistance from Chinese drugmaker Walvax Biotechnology. The Indonesian company is currently conducting Phase 3 trials, with plans to eventually produce 70 million doses annually.
Over 80% of vaccines Indonesia has secured come from Chinese companies Sinovac Biotech or Sinopharm. But their inactivated-virus vaccines are believed to be less effective than mRNA shots, and the Indonesian government is rushing to secure more Pfizer and Moderna doses.
The Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines are also the most commonly available options in mainland China. Walvax is working on gaining approval for its mRNA shot there.
Located in the heart of the Indo-Pacific, Southeast Asia has emerged as the front lines for vaccine diplomacy. China had provided 190 million doses to members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations by mid-September.
China has focused in particular on Indonesia -- home to Southeast Asia's largest economy and population -- in terms of technology transfers. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has expressed hopes that the country will become a production hub for the region.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is playing catch-up with the help of its partners in the region.
U.S.-based Dynavax Technologies last week signed a memorandum of understanding on vaccine development with Indonesia's state-run Bio Farma. The agreement allows the companies to jointly develop a vaccine using recombinant proteins, said Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, who attended the signing.
Arkturus Therapeutics is preparing to produce an mRNA vaccine in partnership with leading Vietnamese conglomerate Vingroup. It announced Wednesday that its Phase 1 trial in Vietnam had concluded, with the Phase 2 trial set to start with people who have similar characteristics to those for whom the new vaccine is intended.
The company aims to start production at a new plant in Hanoi in early 2022, and reach up to 200 million doses a year.
Beyond Chinese and U.S. players, Japan's Shionogi is looking to conduct Phase 3 trials -- the final trial involving thousands of people before the vaccine is given to the public -- in Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries, and is working to transfer its technology to these markets.
Siam Bioscience, owned by Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn, began producing AstraZeneca vaccines there in June. Roughly half the vaccines in Thailand are made in China, and the government looks to diversify its supply in preparation for mixed-dose regimens.
Case numbers in Southeast Asia are settling down from a summer surge driven by the delta variant. But concerns over new contagious variants persist. The region depends on foreign-made vaccines, meaning supply could plunge once countries like the U.S. start focusing on booster shots at home. There are strong incentives to start producing shots within the country, even if they are not yet formally approved.
Indonesian business insiders hope that vaccine production will bolster the domestic pharmaceutical industry. Developing, manufacturing and distributing shots require input from many different sectors, and could increase employment rates.