Solidarity: How COVID-19 Brought the Turkish R&D Ecosystem Together

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As an upper-middle-income country with an emerging economy, Turkey could not invest billions in COVID-19 vaccine R&D, but a strong research ecosystem and willing industry allowed it to kickstart multiple vaccine and drug projects, discovering a new collaborative model along the way.

 

The responsibility for coordinating Turkey’s research and development effort to produce its own COVID-19 vaccines and drugs fell on two main public agencies: the Health Institutes of Turkey (TUSEB) under the Ministry of Health and the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TUBITAK), under the Ministry of Industry and technology. National regulatory body TITCK began preparing guidelines in consultation with the WHO back in March 2020 with detailed information to guide the research groups that would conduct COVID-19 vaccine studies.

“We decided to support several projects, and, in hindsight, it was the right decision. We have discovered a new collaborative model where researchers, companies that produce vaccines, and academicians can work together inside vaccine factories,” explains TUSEB’s president, Erhan Akdoğan. One of the vaccine candidates supported by the agency is currently in phase III clinical trials.

On the other side of the effort, TÜBİTAK brought the ecosystem’s drug and vaccine development competencies under a unified “COVID-19 Turkey Platform,” counting 436 researchers from 49 different institutions to work on 17 projects, seven of which were vaccines.

“Co-creation based approaches are transforming the way R&D and innovation is being conducted with interactive processes replacing linear processes,” contends Dr. Hasan Mandal, president of TÜBİTAK.

The model described by both Akdoğan and Dr. Mandal began with an initial funding of just around USD 200,000, which proved to be relatively sufficient due to one factor, selfless collaboration.

Projects were able to progress, according to multiple industry stakeholders, because academics did not charge a dime for their work – using funds to buy material only –, universities opened their laboratories and companies provided their GMP production facilities and R&D labs for free, without purchase guarantees from the government.

“Collaboration was critical… It was a miracle. It proved that people can come together for the greater good. Other countries were able to throw money at the problem, but that was not the case for us,” explains Dogan Taskent, president of the Swiss Chamber of Commerce in Turkey.

This opinion is shared by TUSEB’s Akdoğan, “these initiatives developed rapidly with the help of the laudable efforts from scientists, the pharmaceutical industry and universities. The priority given by the Minister of Health for vaccine production has played an important role in accelerating the process.”

 

Progress made

Apart from the discovery of the advantages of a collaborative approach to R&D, Turkey’s effort is providing tangible results.

As of the writing of this report (October 2021), one candidate is ongoing phase III clinical trials in the country with 40,000 participants, Turkovac, an inactive vaccine jointly developed by the MoH, TUSEB and Erciyes University.

On the competing side, TÜBİTAK’s most advanced project, a virus-like particle (VLP) vaccine candidate became the first to enter clinical trials and just the fourth VLP to do so globally. Confident about the potential of the vaccine, Dr. Hasan Mandal and Dr. Faruk Özlu, Minister of Industry and Technology, volunteered for the initial studies. The candidate is expected to begin phase III trials.

Beyond vaccines, the COVID-19 Turkey Platform includes 10 different treatment-oriented drug development projects that involve drug molecular modelling, recombinant neutralizing antibody, convalescent plasma and synthetic drug synthesis and production.


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