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This Thai Researcher Aims To Make His Country A Covid-19 Vaccine Powerhouse

Kiat Ruxrungtham isn’t content to see Thailand wait in line to buy vaccines from another country. He’s on a mission to build up Thailand’s own vaccine production capabilities, to supply not only his country but 6 nearby nations with immunizations against Covid-19. His long-term goal is even more ambitious: to lay the groundwork for rapid vaccine development against the next pandemic, whenever it may strike.

“When you face another pandemic, instead of sitting and waiting to buy it, you have to stand up and make your own vaccine,” said Ruxrungtham, who is head researcher at Chulalongkorn University’s Center of Excellence in Vaccine Research and Development, in Bangkok. He pointed to the lesson of the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, when wealthy countries produced a vaccine relatively quickly using well-established technology.

“China, the US, Europe, Japan – every country got a vaccine within a few months,” he pointed out, in a recent Asia Society Hong Kong conversation. “Thailand got it when the pandemic was already almost gone.”

The solution, he said, is to invest in Thailand’s own vaccine development program. By establishing funding and production pipelines now, he said, the country will be well-positioned to quickly produce a vaccine the next time a pandemic erupts.

Ruxrungtham founded the Chula Vaccine Research Center (Chula VRC), at Chulalongkorn University, in 2017. The center has been pursuing DNA- and protein-based vaccines for several infectious diseases, including dengue, HIV, leptospirosis, and now Covid-19. They’re also developing a vaccine to dust mite allergies.

To produce a coronavirus vaccine, they are using the mRNA platform that has proven safe and effective in trials from Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech. On this, they are getting an assist from Drew Weissman, one of the pioneers of the mRNA technology.

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Chula is the place to discover one’s true individuality and the years I spent here were most enjoyable.

Rossukhon Kongket Alumni, Faculty of Communication Arts, Chulalongkorn University