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Samsung’s Lee plays role in early supply of Moderna vaccine

Samsung Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong (Yonhap)
Samsung Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong (Yonhap)
Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong was behind Moderna’s decision to supply the first batch of COVID-19 vaccines manufactured here to the Korean government, industry sources claimed Wednesday.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare announced Tuesday it had authorized the domestic supply of 2.4 million doses to be finished at Samsung Biologics’ factory in Songdo, Incheon, from next month.

The biopharmaceutical affiliate of Samsung has a deal with the US vaccine firm to “fill-and-finish” the shots -- taking the drug and putting it into vials ready for use.

The Samsung Electronics executive is the de-facto chief of the entire Samsung Group, being the only son of the late Samsung Group chairman Lee Kun-hee.

According to the sources, Lee has been looking for ways to contribute to the government’s vaccine program since he was released on parole on Aug. 13. Strengthening the corporation’s partnership with Moderna appears to have been among the top priorities.

Lee had been in jail since January, on a bribery conviction.

Announcing his inclusion in the parolee list, President Moon Jae-in mentioned the public’ expectations on his role not just in navigating the intensifying global chip war but also in helping the country fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Hopes were pinned on his ability to use his global networks as well as Samsung’s massive trading power to aid the country’s procurement of vaccine shots from US vaccine developers -- namely Pfizer and Moderna.

While keeping a low profile since release from jail, Lee has been putting efforts on “getting closer” with Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel through multiple rounds of teleconferences, according to a person with the knowledge of the situation.

One of Lee’s longtime acquaintances had connections at Moderna and introduced the Samsung vice chairman to the Moderna CEO, the person said.

Lee and Bancel have agreed to increase the two firms’ partnership beyond the COVID-19 vaccine to the overall biopharmaceutical industry.

Lee was expected to visit Moderna’s headquarters in the US in person, but the travel restriction placed on a parolee and ongoing trials over suspicions of illegal leadership inheritance practices would have limited Lee’s plan, the person explained.

Instead, the top brass of Samsung Electronics, Samsung Biologics and Samsung Bioepis launched a task force on moving forward the supply schedule of the Moderna vaccine that was started to be produced at the bio affiliate in late August.

Samsung Electronics shared its know-how on smart manufacturing for the bio affiliate to raise the yields by dispatching top engineers from the semiconductor business.

On the first anniversary of the death of Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee on Monday, the junior Lee said, “To make a new Samsung, let’s work together for the better future of our society.”

Some in the industry assume that the message is an indication that Lee might soon officially return to work and represent Samsung as the group’s sole leader.

By Song Su-hyun (song@heraldcorp.com)
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