Global race for COVID-19 vaccine continues

While some have recently concluded that the US and Europe are in the lead toward developing a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, the drive by the South Korean pharmaceutical industry to achieve the first domestically produced vaccine continues unabated. One of the reasons has to do with signs suggesting that individual countries may make a priority of supplying a vaccine to their own people and those in other specific countries. A heated battle is also under way to ensure stable supplies.


According to accounts from biotech and pharmaceutical industry sources on May 20, none of the South Korean companies that are currently working on developing a coronavirus vaccine has yet reached the clinical trial stage. This suggests they lag behind the US company Moderna, which recently received approval for Phase II clinical trials from the US Food and Drug Administration, and the UK’s University of Oxford, which is currently conducting Phase I and II trials. According to the procedures for the development of vaccines and other new medications, candidate materials may be used in experiments on human subjects in Phase I to III clinical trials once success has been achieved in non-clinical experiments on animal subjects. South Korea’s companies are currently stuck at the non-clinical stage — or have not yet reached it.


At the same time, the companies appear poised to run the full race, regardless of whether other countries succeed in developing vaccines. The reason is that even if another country succeeds in vaccine development, there is no guarantee of sufficient supplies within South Korea.

“If a vaccine is developed overseas, there’s a possibility that it will basically be supplied on a priority basis to that country,” explained a source at one of the companies that is working on developing a vaccine.

“Our plan this time is to complete the development process through our own efforts rather than licensing out [exporting technology],” the source said.

A battle has already been raging in the international community over priority rights to vaccine supplies. It was sparked on May 13 by Paul Hudson, CEO of the pharmaceutical company Sanofi. In an interview with the US news outlet Bloomberg, Hudson said, “The US government has the right to the largest pre-order because it’s invested in taking the risk.”

The remarks from the Sanofi CEO drew an immediate outcry from the French government and European Commission. An open letter by around 140 current and former political leaders and experts around the world calling for vaccines to first be supplied to vulnerable populations was published on the UN website. Appearing a day later on May 14 on the local BFM network, Olivier Bogillot, Sanofi’s chief in France, took a step back, saying that “if Sanofi succeeds in developing a vaccine, the benefits will return to everyone.”

Just as Sanofi’s backtracking seemed to be putting the situation to bed, the embers of the priority supply debate were stirred once again by the British government. On May 14, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Alok Sharma told the local press that the UK “will be first to get access” if a vaccine is developed by Oxford. Along with Moderna, Oxford is seen as one of the places with the potential to develop the first vaccine. AstraZeneca, the multinational pharmaceutical company partnering with Oxford, is reported to have already contracted to supply millions of doses of a vaccine to the UK.

“Given this is an international public health crisis, I anticipate there will be demands from the international community to loosen patent restrictions [if another country succeeds first in developing a vaccine],” said a source with the Korea Pharmaceutical and Bio-Pharma Manufacturers Association.

At the same time, the source cautioned, “This is not a situation where anyone can say anything for certain at the moment.” The zeal shown by South Korea’s biotech and pharmaceutical industries is also seen as reflecting the aim of seizing an advantage in a future where infectious diseases will be a regular part of the landscape.

“The marketability of the vaccines currently being developed is important, but there’s also an element of establishing a platform in anticipation of the coronavirus situation stretching into the long term, or another infectious disease outbreak in the future,” explained a source at one company that is working on a vaccine.


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