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Korea in talks to produce 1 billion Covid mRNA vaccines
South Korean senior citizens receive their first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid vaccine at a centre in Seoul in April 2021. Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/ Pool via Reuters.

South Korea says it has capacity, raw materials and skilled staff at local pharmaceutical companies to immediately produce a large number of mRNA vaccines if agreement can be reached with companies such as Pfizer or Moderna; there is desperately shortage of effective vaccines right across Asia currently

 

(AF) South Korea could provide the answer to millions of prayers in Asia. The country is in talks with mRNA vaccine makers including Pfizer and Moderna to produce Covid-19 shots and ready to make up to 1 billion doses in the country immediately, a senior government official has said.

The plan, if agreed, would help ease tight global supply of Covid-19 vaccines, particularly in Asia which lags North America and Europe in vaccine rollouts, and put South Korea a step closer to its ambition to become a major vaccine manufacturing centre.

South Korea already has deals to locally produce three coronavirus vaccines developed by AstraZeneca/Oxford University, Novavax, and Russia. It also has a vaccine bottling and packaging deal with Moderna.

“We’ve been holding frequent talks with big pharmaceutical companies to produce mRNA vaccines,” Lee Kang-ho, director general for the global vaccine hub committee under South Korea’s health ministry, told Reuters.

“There are only a few mRNA vaccine developers – Pfizer, Moderna, CureVac and BioNTech. Thus there’s a limit to how much they can produce to meet global demand… South Korea is keen to help by offering its facilities and skilled human resources,” Lee said.

It’s not immediately clear how advanced these talks are and whether and when a deal will be agreed upon, as BioNTech declined to comment, while Moderna and CureVac did not reply to requests for comments.

A Pfizer spokesperson said the company is making efforts to enhance its Covid-19 vaccine supply chain but added “we do not have anything specific to announce at this time.”

‘Big capacity’

Lee declined to name local vaccine makers which have the capacity to produce mRNA vaccines immediately, but a government source said they include Hanmi Pharmaceuticals Co Ltd and Quratis Co Ltd.

Hanmi confirmed that it has a big capacity reserved for Sanofi’s diabetes drug and it can be used for Covid-19 vaccine production as the Sanofi project has stalled.

“We happen to have this facility available right now because our clinical trial (with Sanofi) was discontinued in the middle of last year,” Kim Soo-jin, senior vice president of Hanmi, told Reuters.

“It’s very timely that we have a fully ready, GMP, state-of-the-art facility available,” she said, referring to good manufacturing practice.

Quratis, which makes a tuberculosis vaccine, said its new factory built last year can now be used for mRNA vaccine production.

Shares in Hanmi erased early losses and rose nearly 4% on Monday after the Reuters report was published.

Collaboration with WHO

South Korea has stepped up its effort to produce more vaccines since US President Joe Biden agreed in May with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on a comprehensive partnership on Covid vaccines.

Lee said his team is having frequent video conference calls with the vaccine makers and the World Health Organization (WHO).

WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic has said the organisation is “talking with South Korea and other countries,” but did not elaborate.

It said last month it will set up a hub in South Africa to manufacture mRNA vaccines within 9-12 months that will give companies from poor and middle-income countries the know-how and licences to produce Covid-19 vaccines.

Lee said mRNA vaccine makers may be reluctant to share their technology, but they can take advantage of South Korea’s raw material suppliers to address a global shortage of such ingredients as lipids, nucleotides and capping reagents.

“They’re capable of manufacturing and developing such raw materials to help vaccine makers… and the South Korean government is committed to provide all necessary support including financial and administrative aid.”

Lee said the country also has a capacity for at least another 500 million doses of fill-and-finish vaccines apart from the deal Moderna announced with Samsung BioLogics in May.

With reporting by Reuters

 

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Jim Pollard

Jim Pollard is an Australian journalist based in Thailand since 1999. He worked for News Ltd papers in Sydney, Perth, London and Melbourne before travelling through SE Asia in the late 90s. He was a senior editor at The Nation for 17+ years and has a family in Bangkok.

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