COVID-19 shows need to boost production of medical diagnostic tools in Asia

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that it is time for a more diverse medical diagnostics market in Asia, with sustainable local production to meet the local health needs. This was underscored by health and technology experts in a webinar today, titled ‘Local Production of Diagnostics to Meet Health Needs in Asia,’ organized by Doctors Without Borders / Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

“The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly shown that when supply is scarce, low-and middle-income countries (LMICs) are at the end of the queue. More investments and actions are needed to scale up local research and development, and production capacity of quality diagnostics in low-and middle-income countries,” said Stijn Deborggraeve, Diagnostics Advisor, MSF Access Campaign.

The webinar, attended by around 100 stakeholders from Southeast Asia, discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic has uncovered the limits of the current diagnostics market, where most countries rely on the supply of a few global manufacturers for diagnostic tests, and the steps needed to diversify the diagnostics market with more local production. In a pandemic, where global needs exceed the global market capacity to supply, and when time is of the essence, the world needs to think of more efficient ways to meet the health needs in all countries. 

“Local scientists and producers are key to inclusive and time-critical healthcare. However, they are often on their own in the journey from R&D to commercialization. A little assistance, such as seed funding or consultation in clinical trial and production, would go a long way. With assistance, these Davids can help beat any pandemic Goliaths,” commented Berlin Tran, Researcher at University of Economics Ho Chi Minh City.

Next to COVID-19, many disease control programs in countries suffer from poor access to quality- assured diagnostics, as countries are reliant on importation of diagnostic tests from the United States and Europe, and high-volume manufacturers based in China, India and South Korea, for most diseases. Countries often struggle to import the tests they need to detect diseases that primarily affect their region. Manufacturers in high-income countries (HICs) generally have limited interest in
developing tests that primarily affect LMIC regions, or may discontinue production because of the limited and less profitable market. 

“Importation of diagnostics technology for healthcare also imports the assumptions under which the technology was created. In contrast, locally developed diagnostics can, and should, bake in the needs and problems of the community into their design. However, the local R&D of diagnostics is challenging and encumbered by slow sourcing of materials, unclear regulatory guidance, and difficulty in achieving multi-sectoral alignment; challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has only
made evident—not created. If we aim to tackle this pandemic and prepare for the next one, we must create an enabling R&D ecosystem for local diagnostics. One that supports their initial development and provides a clear pathway to the market and to widespread adoption by our healthcare system,” added Ricardo Jose Guerrero, Research Fellow at Ateneo Research Institute of Science and Engineering (ARISE), and Engineering Lead at Bayan Biomedical Research Group.

The event was moderated by Howie Severino, a veteran Filipino journalist who was one of the Philippines’ first COVID-19 patients; Severino also produced a documentary about the experience from his hospital bed. Dr. Stijn Deborggrave,  Diagnostics Advisor for Infectious Diseases at MSF Access Campaign, presented on recent findings and recommendations of Doctors Without Borders around local production of diagnostics.

The presentation was followed by Dr. Jaime Montoya, Chair of the ASEAN Dx Initiative and Executive Director of the Department of Science and Technology Philippine Council for Health Research and Development (DOST-PCHRD), who spoke about the regional initiatives under the leadership of ASEAN Dx Initiative. Then, Dr. Ricardo Jose Guerrero, Research Fellow at Ateneo Research Institute of Science and Engineering, spoke of the efforts and challenges of local research. Dr. Raul Destura, CEO of Manila HealthTek, gave an overview of the experience of a successful local development of diagnostics. This was followed by presentation of the Vietnamese case where Dr. Berlin Tran, researcher at the University of Economics Ho Chi Min
City and Ms. Van Nguyen Thi Hong, Regulatory Affairs Director of Sunstar JSC, spoke of the enabling environment for development and remaining difficulties. The presentations closed with Dr. Eduardo Banzon, Principal Health Specialist in the Southeast Asia Regional Department of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) providing an overview of funding opportunities countries and companies can pursue through the ADB.

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