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Finding a Cure for Thailand’s Dependence on Drug Imports

Dr. Suparerk Borwornpinyo, Director of Excellent Center for Drug Discovery

By the time you’re reading this, some groups of people must have received the Covid-19 vaccine. It will take some time before the vaccine is available to every population group both in terms of availability and price.

One positive legacy of the pandemic is that it has forced nations to revamp several policies particularly those related to public healthcare. For Thailand, the disease is a boon in a way that it turned a spotlight on the country’s snail-paced drug research and development and the need for the Thai government to re-prioritize its public healthcare agenda.

What it has so far is quite impressive. It will soon launch its own medicine that can fight off Covid-19 with 100-percent effectiveness, according to Dr Suparerk Borwornpinyo, Director of Excellent Center for Drug Discovery (ECDD), Mahidol University.

“We’ve found that active compounds found in finger root or Chinese ginger is effective in the fight against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19…The effectiveness isn’t only on killing the virus, but also on reducing the inflammation.”

The test began in February when reports of coronavirus infections emerged from different parts of the world, and a few weeks before Thailand announced a lockdown as a drastic measure to keep the spread at bay. The research team, led by Arunee Thitithanyanont, of Mahidol’s Faculty of Science and Dr Suparerk, began selecting 120 herbs commonly found in Thai households with well-known medicinal properties in fighting infectious diseases. Among them are the world-famous Fa Talai Jone (Green Chiretta), ginger, and then Krachai Kao (Finger Root).

They found that the effectiveness of Finger Root’s compounds is ten times and 20 times higher than ginger and Green Chiretta respectively. Tests performed on laboratory hamsters also found that the two active ingredients in Finger Root, called Panduratin A and Pinostrobin, can aid the infected hamsters’ immune system in wiping out the virus.

“What makes Finger Root a great candidate for a pharmaceutical drug is that it works much better at a dose lower than the other herbal plants, has no toxicity, and no side effects,” Dr Suparerk notes.

At present, the test is about to enter the human trial stage. It will be carried out on both old and new virus strains. By the end of this year, a drug based on the two compounds should be commercially available. It will be Thailand’s first ‘modern drug’ as opposed to ones which are either generic version or herbal medicines, traditionally made and packaged in capsule form to modernize their looks.

“This will be the first pharmaceutical drug produced under the international standard of drug manufacturing: going through every required step including R&D, stringent tests on both animals and humans, and human trials before proceeding to patent registration.

So why does Thailand, which is one of the countries with the highest biodiversity in Southeast Asia and ranks within the top 20 in the global scale, fail to produce its own medicine earlier when its raw materials are right here?

The very same question had been on Dr Suparerk’s mind for a long time and became the reason why he took this job. “When the center was launched five years ago, we have this motto ‘Create A Drug to Build the Nation” in mind. Our organization’s name says everything,” he points out.

According to a report by the Customs Department, Thailand imported drugs for medical treatment worth 66.47 billion baht in 2019. Keep in mind that these figures were pre-pandemic.

While Thailand fares much better compared to other countries due to its strong healthcare network and system, its drug manufacturing industry remains weak. A report by United Nations Environment Programme showed the country boasts around 15,000 known plant species or 8% of the world’s total flora. The long list of spices and herbal plants in our kitchen is just a fraction of the rich and vast biodiversity pool.

Yet, the country is at the downstream of drug manufacturing: taking production orders, importing active compounds to mix into a generic formula, or buying from foreign drug companies.

“In some cases, we are being used as a base where active compounds are sourced from local plants by foreign drug companies who later patented the compounds. I find it unacceptable,” Dr Suparerk says.

Therefore, the ECDD’s mission is to create a platform to fill the gap that hinders Thailand’s progress in drug research and manufacturing. In the past, the consumption of foreign drugs was only 20 percent. Now, it accounts for more than 80 percent because the country cannot keep up with the complexity of new manufacturing technology and innovation.

Established five years ago, the center is the result of collaborative efforts of Thailand Center of Excellence for Life Sciences (TCELS), Faculty of Medicine Ramathibodi Hospital and Faculty of Science Mahidol University which operate in the field of pharmaceutical research/drug discovery.

The importance of ‘drug security’ cannot be ignored. It was not the first time the Thai government was under urgent pressure to secure adequate vaccines. It was in a similar situation during the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, when, at the height of the outbreak, every government prohibited companies in their country from exporting the flu vaccine. Fortunately, the government finally managed to get two million doses and the disease was curbed quickly.

Meanwhile, the center is also working on a compound which can decrease nausea in cancer patients after their chemotherapy by 70 percent. This will help patients regain their appetite easier and make a rapid recovery. Its release will come after the Covid-19 medicine.

“Once these drug are out, Thais will realize how much potential our country has. Our goal is to see everyone have access to medicine. They should be able to take care of themselves and their family without breaking the bank.”