Members from the U.S. Army Medical Directorate-Armed Forces Research Institute of the Medical Sciences (AFRIMS) celebrated 60 years of sustained partnership in Thailand, November 4, 2021.
The unit held a one day summit that featured senior officials from the Royal Thai Army, U.S. Embassy and other distinguished presenters from across the region.
A mix of in-person and virtual presentations were given to celebrate the milestones and provide updates on current vaccine research and trials. Many leaders provided prerecorded congratulatory messages, commemorating the many achievements from the Command Surgeon for the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, the U.S. Army Surgeon General, Army Futures Command, and more.
“The men and women who founded AFRIMS 60 years ago saw not only a need for a response to their current situation, but a future in which these collaborations would continue to benefit not only our nations, but the region and the world,” said Gen. Mike Murray, Commanding General of Army Futures Command. “We salute the decades of work of this organization, the foresight of the people who founded it, the future they created, and the future we continue to forge.”
The unit is one of WRAIR’s network of expeditionary laboratories and was founded in 1959 as the Thailand Southeast Asia Treaty Organization Cholera Research Project in Bangkok to help combat a cholera epidemic across the region. The unit was renamed AFRIMS in 1977.
For the last six decades, AFRIMS has played a pivotal role in improving host nation capacity and medical capabilities through its robust collaborations between the Royal Thai Army, the Cambodian public health infrastructure, and the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces. This partnership played a critical role in the development of all FDA-approved antimalarial drugs, as well as vaccines, Hepatitis, Dengue, Japanese encephalitis, and RV144, the world’s only partially effective HIV vaccine.
“There is no better example of this openness, an institute made up of researchers from Cambodia, the Philippines, Nepal, Thailand, and the United States, all working in unison for the betterment of global health,” said Brig. Gen. Anthony McQueen, Commanding General of U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command. “AFRIMS is a symbol of cooperation and collaboration, a proof of concept of how international teamwork can open the way to extraordinary successes.”
As a binational institute and with multinational partners, AFRIMS has achieved several milestones and successes. The satellite laboratory in Kamphaeng Phet had conducted clinical trials, including in the Japanese encephalitis 1970s when 40,000 school children helped prove the vaccine’s efficacy and safety. It led to its incorporation into the childhood immunization program of Thailand and eventual licensure in the U.S.
“Generations of Thai families have taken part in clinical trials, a trust like that makes joining in the fight against disease a family tradition,” said Lt. Gen. Scott Dingle, Surgeon General of the U.S. Army and Commanding General of U.S. Army Medical Command. “[This] could only be achieved through decades of demonstrated dependability, manifest transparency, and personal engagement, hand-in-hand with the Royal Thai Army and the Ministry of Public Health.”
The partnerships evolved through the years and set a model outbreak response approach for the current global pandemic. AFRIMS remains engaged in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic throughout Southeast Asia as the institute continues to monitor and report on the COVID-19 situation both within Thailand and regionally. Both the U.S. Army and the RTA at AFRIMS, in collaboration with the Mahidol-Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit (MORU), Mahidol University, Bangkok, joined together to become a member of the COVID-19 Network Investigations (CONI) Alliance. The group is responsible for generating high-quality genomic sequence data of SARS-CoV-2 for sharing with medical communities and the public for diagnostic and surveillance purposes.
“AFRIMS acquired and performed validation of the earliest published methodologies, making them one of the first laboratories in Thailand and in Southeast Asia to be able to aid in the screening of COVID-19 in-persons under investigation,” said Rear. Adm. Pamela Miller, Command Surgeon for U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. “[AFRIMS] efforts were crucial in providing regional support during the early days of the outbreak as [other] laboratories were waiting for the ability to acquire their own Covid-19 screening assays through their official channels. Lives were saved by these efforts; I have no doubt.”
The celebration concluded with remarks from RTA-AFRIMS Director General Maj. Gen. Thamrongroj Temudom and USAMD-AFRIMS Director Col. Eric Lombardini.
“It [was] truly a tremendous opportunity to recognize the strong and long-standing partnership between Thailand and the U.S.,” Temudom said. “I sincerely hope that from the presentations and discussion afterwards that we can contribute further valuable research studies on saving soldiers and people around the world.”
“The work we do is extraordinarily impactful and it’s something that I’m extremely proud of,” Lombardini said. “I look forward to the next decade in protecting not just our warfighter and citizenry, but the world at large.”