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Turkey Touted as Potential Leader in Providing Vaccine for Region

Doctors say country could manufacture 100 million doses in pre-filled syringes

Turkey could be a leader in helping deliver a vaccine to the wider region, scientists have told The Media Line, but warn that the country could lag behind its Western allies in production.

One of Turkey’s top pharmaceutical companies said it could produce 10 million pre-filled syringes, the type most vaccines require, per year, while there are estimates of a total of 100 million of these syringes existing in the country.

“I understand there will be capacity for up to 100 million [syringes]… maybe more,” said Dr. Oguz Akbas, a pharmacologist who has worked on vaccine studies and collaborated with Turkish authorities.

“Turkey has a very good production capacity with good… regulations in place,” he told The Media Line.

Akbas believes there are approximately 10 companies in Turkey that can manufacture vaccines and help deliver them to the wider region, especially due to the country’s relatively strong pharmaceutical industry.

“I think Turkey can have a leading role, but how is the toughest part,” he said.

Nadir Ulu, vice president of the pharmaceutical company Gen Ilac, said the firm could produce up to 10 million pre-filled syringes a year.

“I think in general if we will have access to vaccines to produce, first [it will be] for our own population, and then we will be happy to do more for other countries as well,” he told The Media Line.

He explained that the discovery and creation of a liquid formulation for the vaccine would take place abroad, and then be packaged into pre-filled syringes in Turkey. He warned, however, that a major obstacle would involve production logistics for the massive amounts that will be necessary.

Ulu says his company is collaborating on research for a possible COVID-19 vaccine but he cannot disclose details at this stage.

He also believes that some trials for either a vaccine or medical treatments for the coronavirus would take place in Turkey, where it is much cheaper to carry them out compared to Europe or the US. Yet he warns that production costs will be taken into account.

“This is not a non-profit organization,” he noted, “and we have to take into account the required amount for production and, of course, turnover. But in general, I think we have to do our best to provide a solution for everybody all around the world.”

Turkey agreed last week to collaborate on a vaccine with Russia and carry out joint clinical trials. Researchers in Turkey have already begun testing vaccine candidates on animals.

Dr. Ergin Kocyildirim, an assistant professor of cardiothoracic surgery at the University of Pittsburgh, says that although the Turkish government plans to improve its vaccine production in order to both reduce its reliance on imports and ramp up exports, a number of issues remain.

“Even though the centralized and government-monitored health system seems in very good shape according to OECD rankings, the quality of medical training [and] number of scientific research and published peer-reviewed articles are very limited,” he wrote in an email to The Media Line.

Kocyildirim added that only 4% of the population gets the seasonal flu vaccine.

“The high cost [and] very low awareness of adulthood vaccination make it harder to plan a solid immunization program in Turkey,” he stated.

Ankara has been providing medical aid abroad during the pandemic.

The government said it was providing masks and other medical equipment to countries in the Middle East, as well as to Europe and the US. The packages are delivered with the seal of the President’s Office instead of the Republic of Turkey, helping boost Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s profile.

Analysts say he wants to develop an image of an international leader and defender of Muslims.

The country’s medical sector has helped build its soft power in the Middle East and Africa, according to Aykan Erdemir, a former lawmaker from the main opposition party who is now senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“Any drugs or vaccines [that] Turkey-based entities develop in this process would offer Ankara additional resources alongside shipments of personal protective equipment to strengthen its charm offensive during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Erdemir wrote in an email to The Media Line.

Erdemir added that providing medical aid to other countries could “recruit patients who need access to inexpensive but reliable medical treatment overseas.”

Medical tourism to Turkey has boomed in recent years and could offset traditional hospitality tourism, a key sector that has fallen dramatically due to the pandemic.

Ulu believes that Turkey would not be in on “the first wave” of vaccinations, saying it should encourage discussions aimed at collaborations with foreign companies that are leading in vaccine research so that the country’s population can gain access to the vaccines sooner.

“I think [it] is not too late, but not too early as well [to start these discussions],” he said.

“We have to think [in] a lot more detailed [way] about where we are now in the production of the vaccines, and how early… the vaccine [will] be available for Turkish citizens,” he said.