NO MORE DILEMMA
Immunisation prevents illness and disability from infectious diseases. It also prevents fatality. According to the World Health Organisation, 1.5 million deaths can be avoided every year if the global vaccination coverage improves.
So, it’s a no brainer that vaccination should be widely accepted? Except that it’s not.
Vaccine refusal is alarming and a growing trend, fuelled by anti-vaccine movements worldwide. Objection to immunisation arise due to many reasons - stemming from a general distrust towards the government or healthcare providers, while some claims that their religion is opposed to vaccines.
“Immunisation is creating immunity against disease - you are preventing illness, preventing suffering, giving health,” says AJ Vaccines chairman Dr Tabassum Khan.
If you eliminate all the animal sources, you are already moving towards halal
“If anybody calls this haram, I have no means to argue with them.”
Saudi pharmaceutical company AJ Vaccines has set up shop in Malaysia for that very reason - to create vaccines which are more acceptable to a larger group of people, especially Muslims who refuse vaccines for fear they are not halal.
“If you eliminate all the animal sources, you are already moving towards halal. And what is halal? It is an Arab word that means permissible,” adds Dr Tabassum. “So, if you eliminate the animal components, it will be acceptable to everybody - not only to Muslims but also to non-Muslims.”
An investment to the tune of USD 200 million has been allocated by the group to establish Malaysia’s first vaccine development facility, located at Bandar Enstek, Negeri Sembilan.
The formulation and fill-finish facility is expected to deliver its first vaccine packaging by the end of 2019. The group has started manufacturing animal component free polio vaccine in Denmark via its Statens Serum Institut - a vaccine production business it acquired in 2017.
“It is under certification with Jakim at the moment. Polio is a disease that has resurfaced in the Islamic world. It has caused a lot of disability, a lot of deaths,” says Dr Tabassum.
"So, I think we are providing tools in a manner that the larger population are immunised against the disease."
AJ Vaccines has big plans to expand production and vaccine coverage in the ASEAN region through its Malaysia subsidiary. The company already established hubs in Europe and Middle East.
But why choose Malaysia when there is a neighbour with a Muslim population, over ten times larger right next door?
Malaysia's vaccines security level is totally dependent on other countries
According to Dr Tabasum, a well-developed halal ecosystem, supported by an internationally recognised halal certification, first drew the company to consider Malaysia. It was further boosted by encouraging support from the government.
“The government was very supportive, the incentives were good,” he adds. “You also have trained people. The scientific environment is very healthy.”
But more importantly, says Dr Tabassum, a big gap currently exists in Malaysia. “The vaccines security level is totally dependent on other countries."
While regional peers like Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia have established vaccines facilities, Malaysia is fully dependant on imports for vaccines, leaving it vulnerable to shortages during emergencies or epidemic and pandemic outbreaks.
“We would like to appreciate the government to have invited us in, to do this social program to develop vaccines locally, so that the whole population of Malaysia can have security in the long term. Because in terms of epidemics, when it happens, every country like to cater to own population before sending (vaccines) out.
About a quarter of vaccines produced in the Malaysian facility will be catered to the local market while the rest will be exported. “It's not just about vaccine. It's about people, training of people. It’s about creating local talent,” says Dr Tabassum.
The group currently produces vaccines against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (TdaPVaccine) and tuberculosis (BCG Vaccine). With the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation - it is also developing a low-dose polio affordable (IPV vaccine) in its Denmark facility.
“We are going reduce the cost quite significantly. So, we see (the possibility) of transferring that technology into Malaysia - the low cost polio vaccine - and then disseminating to all developing countries in the region.”
“We are selecting people to be trained in Denmark so that they will have a hands-on experience. Majority of them will be Malaysians,” he adds.
Watch the full interview below with Dr Tabassum Khan who lays out the plan for AJ Vaccines Malaysia facility.