By Ameen Kamal
RUSSIA’S offer to share Sputnik V’s vaccine production technical know-how with Malaysia, as reported in the Malay Mail, is a refreshing tone compared to the dominant backdrop of “vaccinationalism” and news of governments claiming of bullying by a vaccine producer via unreasonable supply conditions.
Senior correspondent for Malay Mail, Syed Jaymal Zahiid mentioned that “To date, Russia is the only country that has made such an offer to Malaysia”, which could be true depending on the specifics of the offer.
But as far as producing Sputnik V, countries such as Brazil, China, India, and the Republic of Korea could also be producing it, according to market and consumer data portal Statista.
Euronews, a European-based news portal, also reported that Italy would also join the pack as the first EU country producing Sputnik V by July this year.
It was also reported by Reuters that Malaysia’s Pharmaniaga deal with China’s Sinovac include fill-and-finish process of the vaccine in Malaysia whereby Pharmaniaga also pointed to a local manufacturing deal, through a licensing agreement with Sinovac for its technology and know-how.
Local production deals such as those associated with vaccine producers from Russia and China are mutually beneficial. Malaysia’s geographical advantage makes it a great hub for any exports such as vaccines, as it is centrally located at the heart of Asia-Pacific. It’s also mutually strategic as it was reported that aside from Singapore, other counties in the region have shown interest in Sputnik V.
Syed Jaymal Zahiid mentioned in a Tweet regarding Russia’s offer that “It’s an offer bundled in the deal for Sputnik V” whereby Russian Ambassador to Malaysia, Naiyl M. Latypov mentioned Russia’s offer include collaboration in “capacity building, technology sharing and research and development of vaccines with Malaysia”.
It is unclear how these are packaged but assuming its through some sort of licensing deal, technology transfer arrangements associated with the purchase of more affordable vaccines that are inclusive of significant capacity building, investments, collaborative research and development could be a middle ground between complete waiver of intellectual property – which is strongly opposed by pharmaceutical giants and most high-income countries – and complete concentration of manufacturing in only a few locations in the world.
Such model allows global vaccine production scale-up and allows manufacturing countries to have the ability to produce vaccines for itself, effectively reducing reliance on other nations.
Depending on factors such as volumes and contractual obligations, Malaysia’s participation as a producer could alleviate global supply bottlenecks in a future scenario. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean equitable access to vaccines for other nations.
Equitable access is not only a matter of vaccine availability (production volume) but also accessibility (logistics, prices and etc). Therefore, worldwide equitable access to vaccines may improve partially, depending on the costs associated with the licensing.
Sputnik V is still under review by the National Pharmaceutical Regulatory Agency (NPRA) whereby it would be assessed primarily on safety, efficacy and efficiency. That being said, there are also strategic considerations that should be taken into account in vaccine portfolio strategy.
An ideal vaccine choice would be something that is safe, efficacious, effective and affordable. On top of that, it should be nimble enough to be updated in cases of virus mutations, or in cases of new pandemics and biological threats. Deal sweeteners include local production, especially if it involves latest technology transfer deals at reasonable costs, capacity building, R&D and also investments.
At the moment, Russia’s offer through Sputnik V appears to fit some of these criteria, subject to further details on the deal and pending assessment by NPRA. The reported efficacy in the interim analysis of Sputnik V’s Phase 3 clinicals trials was 91.6%, putting it among the likes of Pfizer and Moderna.
Since there are other countries that have approved and used Sputnik V, it’s probably best to also observe experience in other countries that have approved Sputnik V to obtain more data on real-world experience with the vaccine. It’s been reported that about 50 countries worldwide have placed orders for Sputnik V.
Russia’s offer on top its vaccine supply deal was also reported as potentially paving the way for Malaysia to achieve “vaccine independence”. Russia’s offer is a good initiative with a partnership vibe instead of just a pure seller-buyer deal at arm’s length, which Malaysia should reciprocate and make full use of the opportunity.
This could be one of the steps in addressing a critical area of Malaysia’s national security and is in line with Malaysia’s aspiration to develop its own internal capabilities in vaccine production in the future. Though such deals can alleviate over-dependency on other countries, achieving vaccine independence will take more than offers of manufacturing license and tech-transfers.
Vaccine development from lab to large scale production can take a long time, can be very costly and is often associated with very low success rates. Enormous financial and intellectual resilience are the norm in vaccine research, development and production capabilities.
Taking the reality of Malaysia’s current capabilities, it’s worth considering such partnerships to bridge the knowledge gap and alleviate the financial burdens through partnerships, which can help pave the way for Malaysia to increase internal standalone capabilities for the long run.
In preparation for potential future pandemics, the proposed National Vaccine Centre may be considered as a central platform for similar collaborations, but it will need to supported with a critical mass of talents, which may require a reformed education system in Malaysia that prepares Malaysia’s future workforce with a revitalised interest and skill in science and technology.
Afterall, these talents are the true recipients of technology transfer, without which there can be no sustained capacity building.
In this particular case, it’s clear there must be a revival of related fields of sciences such as biotechnology, bioprocessing and biomedical sciences alongside other frontier technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).
Highly skilled talents in these fields, supported with proper infrastructure and resilient financial backing can make full use of the tech-transfer/capacity building offer such as the one from Russia, as one of the initial steps toward vaccine independence. – March 14, 2021
Ameen Kamal is the Head of Science & Technology at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.
The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.