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South Korea aims to develop mRNA vaccine by next year

Test tubes are seen in front of a displayed Moderna logo. (Reuters-Yonhap)
Test tubes are seen in front of a displayed Moderna logo. (Reuters-Yonhap)

A South Korean government official said Monday that the country aims to secure messenger RNA vaccine technology to strengthen its vaccine production capacity and take a step up as a global vaccine production hub.

“Our goal is not to become a contract manufacturing partner in the production of ingredients for the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines. We aim to develop the mRNA vaccines by next year, with technologies acquired through possible technology transfers and co-development deals,” said Son Young-rae, spokesperson for the Ministry of Health and Welfare, during a radio interview on Monday.

The remarks came as Korea’s Samsung BioLogics set out preparations to take up the “fill and finish” process for Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine, mRNA 1273, at its plant in Songdo. Under the deal, signed last week in Washington, the Korean firm will take the drug imported from elsewhere, put it in vials and package the vials for shipment.

Moderna is also considering setting up its own vaccine production base in Korea, the company said. It has signed a memorandum of understanding with Korea’s Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy and Ministry of Health and Welfare.

Under the memorandum, the US firm agreed to review investments to establish the mRNA vaccine production facility and hire employees in Korea. The ministries, in return, plan to offer support for Moderna’s investment and business activities here.

The Korean government is expected to leverage the partnership with Moderna to help the local development of mRNA vaccines as well.

Messenger RNA technology is considered more advanced than conventional vaccine technologies based on viral vectors. No Korean firm has mRNA technology.

Korea is the contract manufacturer of three viral vector-based COVID-19 vaccines -- those developed by AstraZeneca and Novavax, and Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine.

Samsung BioLogics is the first Korean company to ever deal with mRNA-type COVID-19 vaccines, although it is just for the fill-finish process. Moderna’s is one of the only two mRNa vaccines developed, with the other being the one from Pfizer-BioNTech.

Market experts are divided over the possibility of Samsung BioLogics striking an additional deal with Moderna to produce vaccine ingredients.

“Samsung BioLogics is capable of establishing new facilities that could produce core ingredients for the Moderna vaccine,” a market analyst from SK Securities said, Monday.

KTB Investment, however, was pessimistic about the chances of Moderna providing its key license to a company other than its existing production partner -- the Swiss-based Lonza.

Moderna in April said the company would produce as many as 3 billion doses of its COVID-19 vaccine next year by increasing output at several facilities. The company then noted that the investment would allow Lonza to double its output at facilities in Switzerland that make vaccine ingredients.

Health Ministry official Son said Samsung BioLogics handling the filling and packaging of the Moderna jabs could benefit Koreain the short term, as it seeks to secure more doses to inoculate the local population.

The government will negotiate with Moderna to supply part of the domestically produced shots to Korea first, he said.

By Shim Woo-hyun (ws@heraldcorp.com)
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