October 20, 2022
JAKARTA – Adopted worldwide, health protocols to prevent COVID-19 transmission take the form of wearing masks, washing one’s hands, social distancing and quarantine, among other practices. However, those measures are not enough to beat the pandemic. There is a need to develop more effective medicines and vaccines.
The World Health Organization has been leading the global fight against the pandemic. Governments, nongovernmental organizations, corporations, philanthropists and individuals have worked together to discover and provide safer and more effective medicines and vaccines.
The Indonesian government, too, has been doing great in dealing with COVID-19. In particular, the Food and Drug Monitoring Agency (BPOM) has tried its best to ensure the safety, efficacy and quality of medicines and vaccines against COVID-19.
Together with an expert team, the BPOM conducts a scientific pre-marketing evaluation of medicines and vaccine candidates based on chemistry-manufacturing-controls (CMC), pre-clinical test data and clinical trials, in accordance with the WHO guidelines.
The BPOM has so far authorized several COVID-19 medicines and vaccines – both primary and booster – for emergency use. For post-marketing control, the BPOM ensures vaccine stability in the distribution process, quality control and post-marketing surveillance, also known as pharmacovigilance.
COVID-19 has significantly impacted molecular research in Indonesia, including by resulting in the procurement of advanced instruments and the upgrading of the biosafety levels (BSLs) of laboratories. Without much fanfare, Bio Farma, the holding company for state-owned pharmaceutical companies, has recently announced the country’s first home-grown vaccine against COVID-19.
The vaccine, Indovac, was developed in collaboration with Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, the United States. The BPOM, which was involved in the local vaccine development, authorized Indovac for emergency use on Sept. 28. The vaccine has also obtained halal certification.
At the same time, Bio Farma has also started development of booster vaccines and vaccines for children. More importantly, the company has embarked on the process of registering the emergency use listing with the WHO so that Indovac can be used in other countries and contribute to worldwide virus containment efforts.
In addition to Indovac, a second local vaccine called Merah Putih is being developed by Airlangga University and PT Biotis Pharmaceutical Indonesia. This vaccine is the sole work of Indonesian researchers, who developed it from early stages by using the SARS-CoV-2 virus isolated from COVID-19 patients in Surabaya.
Another milestone has come from PT Etana Biotechnologies Indonesia. On Sept. 24, the BPOM issued emergency use authorization for AWCORNA, a COVID-19 vaccine using mRNA methods and developed by China’s Abogen-Yuxi Walvax in collaboration with PT Etana.
As part of the deal, Abogen will transfer the very first mRNA technology to Etana. This technology will enable the company to further develop vaccines beyond COVID-19, in anticipation of new pandemics in the future.
Indeed, thanks to its abundant biological and genomic biodiversity, Indonesia can emerge as a leader in the biotech sector in the years to come.
The use of molecular technology brought by COVID-19 is not only limited to COVID-19 medicines and vaccine discovery but can be applied to other diseases. For example, the technology can be applied to cancers, a leading cause of premature death in most countries, especially low- and middle-income states like Indonesia.
While Indonesia is still fighting infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria, dengue and neglected tropical diseases, there are an increasing number of non-communicable diseases, including cancer, that the country is dealing with. Despite promising advancements in therapeutic options to cure cancer, there are many issues to address in surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.
Therefore, advanced technology from COVID-19 can be used to address cancer more effectively. This includes but is not limited to cancer treatment using cell therapy, monoclonal antibodies, recombinant proteins, oncolytic viruses and immunotoxins.
Clearly, COVID-19 has brought hope to drug development in Indonesia. Considering Indonesia’s potential, given that it is very rich in natural resources and is one of the world’s largest economies, the establishment of a drug development ecosystem will carry a big impact for Indonesia in terms of resilience and competitiveness in the field of medicine and biopharmaceuticals.
In addition, there is a lot of research potential in the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN), universities and private-sector research institutions that can be directed by utilizing COVID-19 technology.
Drug development is a long and complex process. It requires government support to provide a conducive atmosphere for the development of domestic pharmaceuticals. The success of establishing a drug development ecosystem here depends on several factors, including effective government policies and strategies in drug research and development, a rise in the number and capacity of researchers, application of the latest technology in laboratory infrastructure and instruments, more investment, better supervision, international collaboration, as well as the active participation of NGOs, philanthropists, industry and the private sector.
To emulate leading biotech countries, Indonesia will need scientific areas that bring all stakeholders together, such as Lab Central and Mass Bio in Massachusetts, the United States, or the Macquarie Park Innovation Center in Sydney, Australia.
The whole world has been shaken by COVID-19, but there are blessing in disguise from the health crisis. Progress in drug development in Indonesia, the success of local vaccine manufacturing and technology beyond COVID-19 have proven that COVID-19 has a silver lining.