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Why aren't there Korean-made vaccines yet?

Despite Korea's ambition to become global vaccine hub by 2026, the country has no homegrown COVID vaccine yet. Here's why.

(123rf)
(123rf)
Although it has been over two years since the coronavirus began spreading in Korea, the country has not seen a homemade vaccine developed yet.

SK Bioscience is the company closest to delivering the first Korean-developed vaccine as the biopharmaceutical firm’s GBP510 is in the third and final phase of clinical trials. The government and company officials have voiced hope for a successful result and swift authorization as well as commercialization of GBP510 in the first half of this year, but nothing is guaranteed.

According to the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, there are currently seven other local companies in the process of developing COVID-19 vaccines. But they have a long way to go as they are still in the earlier stages of clinical trials.

Industry workers and experts point to a lack of experience and support in vaccine development as a reason for Korea’s relative slowness. 

An industry source told The Korea Herald that the domestic industry does not have the same level of experience and technology that its global rivals have accumulated over decades, saying “It is not even comparable.”

In August, the government announced the plan to turn Korea into a global vaccine hub and inject a total of 2.2 trillion won ($1.8 billion) into developing COVID-19 vaccines and nurturing vaccine production capabilities until 2026.

As it takes up to 1 trillion won to complete the development of a new drug or vaccine, the source said governmental funding might not be effective for vaccine development once it gets divided up between companies.

Another official at a company trying to develop a COVID-19 vaccine said there was a lack of follow-up support from the government since.

“In order to conduct clinical trials, we had to acquire other vaccines that we can use to then compare with what we were developing. It is very difficult for each company to do that. So we asked the government to help us secure them, but we have not received much support,” the official said.

“I wish the government would have focused more on developing our own vaccines from the beginning instead of going almost all-out on acquiring vaccines from the outside.”

More than 20 vaccines have been approved for general or emergency use in countries such as the US, UK, Russia and China, as of December, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, a US think tank. The number of vaccines approved less than two years from the beginning of development are regarded as “unprecedented,” a CFR report reads, adding that the process usually takes eight to 15 years. Experts attribute such fast development to massive state money poured in along with fast-tracked approval processes.

Kim Ki-soon, a medical professor at Korea University, pointed to the reality that the country did not pay much attention to vaccines before the coronavirus outbreak.

“There are no Korean-made vaccines approved yet because we have neglected the basic science on how to make vaccines,” Kim said at a forum hosted by the Korea Science Journalists Association in September.

“The mRNA vaccines developed by Moderna and (BioNTech and) Pfizer underwent clinical trials only a month or two after the coronavirus appeared on Earth. But the truth is that they had carried out studies on mRNA vaccines for 10 to 15 years.”

Speaking at the same KSJA forum, Hong Kee-jong, a medical professor at Konkuk University, said that Korea only began to pay attention to vaccine development after the H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009.

“The parts we relatively lack are the infrastructures needed to create essential materials for vaccine development and test them, as well as the ability to manufacture required equipment,” he said. 

Another difference was the size of financial support from the government. Last year, the Korean government allotted 263 billion won for vaccine development. The budget jumped to 546 billion won this year to support the development of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.

But industry workers say the increased amount is not enough.

“In times of COVID-19, the differences in each country’s government support made or broke the development of vaccines,” said Won Hee-mok, chairman of the Korea Pharmaceutical and Bio-Pharma Manufacturers Association, in an online press conference last month.

“As we all know, the United States provided 20 trillion won for companies including Pfizer and Moderna and the United Kingdom set up a vaccine task force, gave them 10 trillion won and ended up with AstraZeneca’s vaccine.”

Won stressed the importance of having full-scale support from the government in order to secure vaccine and pharmaceutical sovereignty. The plan to turn Korea into a global vaccine hub will mean becoming only a base for consignment production unless domestic companies develop their own vaccines, he said.

Won also called for the need to set up a presidential committee that can oversee each ministry’s policies related to the biopharmaceutical industry and effectively coordinate them.

“We need to lay out mid- to long-term strategies on how to provide financial support for research and development and nurture talent,” he said.

“The government should set up a mega fund of about 5 trillion won to intensively support innovative pipelines and clinical trials.”

By Kan Hyeong-woo (hwkan@heraldcorp.com)
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