In early August, President Moon Jae-in announced South Korea’s intention to become a global hub for the production of COVID-19 vaccines and vaccines for future pandemics.
While South Korea was an early model for handling the pandemic, it has lagged behind other advanced nations in vaccinating its population. According to Our World in Data, only 16 percent of the South Korean population was fully vaccinated as of August 11. This contrasts with the United States and many European countries where over 50 percent of the population is fully vaccinated.
In announcing the vaccine hub initiative, Moon also noted that vaccine inequality remains an issue globally. Only 1.2 percent of individuals in low-income countries are vaccinated and the World Health Organization’s COVAX initiative, which is designed to provide equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines globally, still faces a funding gap of $16.6 billion. The potential need for booster shots to deal with the more contagious Delta variant could further strain supplies for low-income countries.
While South Korea’s pharmaceutical industry has yet to bring a domestically developed vaccine for COVID-19 to market, Moon’s initiative has the potential to expand on the role South Korean firms are already playing in producing vaccines for the global market.
SK Bioscience has been perhaps the most active South Korea firm in the effort to produce vaccines for COVID-19. It is investing $132 million to increase its vaccine production capacity and has agreements to produce COVID-19 vaccines for AstraZeneca and Novavax. SK Bioscience and Novavax have also agreed to cooperate in the development of new vaccines for COVID-19 and other vaccine products.
Through its expanding partnership with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), one of the main partners for the WHO’s COVAX initiative, SK Bioscience reserved space for the production of 2 billion doses of approved COVID-19 vaccines.
CEPI and SK Bioscience have also expanded their collaboration to include the development of a next generation, or Wave 2, COVID-19 vaccine that would be available for use through COVAX. That vaccine, GBP510, has been approved for Phase III studies.
SK Bioscience and GC Pharma, however, are not the only South Korean firms involved in the production of vaccines for COVID-19. Earlier this year, Samsung Biologics reached an agreement to serve as a “finish and fill” partner for Moderna’s international vaccine production, and is adding an mRNA vaccine production line that is expected to be finished in the first half of next year. The new mRNA line would allow Samsung Biologics to provide end-to-end manufacturing services for partners on the production of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines.
South Korean firms are also producing Russia’s COVID-19 vaccine. South Korean biotech firm GL Rapha agreed to produce 150 million doses of the Sputnik V vaccine, while a consortium led by Huons Global Co Ltd entered into an agreement with the Russian Direct Investment Fund to produce 100 million doses of Sputnik V a month beginning in September. More recently, Huons Global Co Ltd also contracted to produce the single dose version of the Sputnik V vaccine, Sputnik Light.
The South Korean government has played a role in helping to facilitate some of these agreements and is currently in talks with mRNA vaccine companies to provide additional production capacity for their products in South Korea.
Under the Moon administration’s new plan, the South Korean government would also invest nearly $2 billion over the next five years in an effort to establish South Korea as one of the world’s top five vaccine producers. The plan would aim to ensure that South Korea is self-sufficient in the areas of technology and key materials necessary for vaccine production. In addition, South Korea would take steps to expand the human capital needed for growing the industry domestically.
South Korea, however, is entering a competitive market for vaccine production. According to data compiled by UNICEF, global vaccine production capacity for all COVID-19 vaccine types was 4.5 billion doses in the first half of this year. That is expected to rise 8.7 billion doses in the second half of 2021. While some estimates suggest that it will take until next year to reach the 11 billion doses needed to inoculate 70 percent of the world’s population, production capacity is expected to grow significantly in 2022 and reach 42.8 billion doses.
For South Korea to succeed in becoming a global vaccination hub, it will be critical to secure production contracts for mRNA vaccines and for domestically developed vaccines such as GBP510 to be proven effective. If South Korea can balance increased production for existing vaccines with the development of new vaccines, especially with concerns about the development of new variants limiting the effectiveness of existing vaccines, while also increasing its current pledge of $210 million to COVAX, it can play an important role in reducing vaccine inequality and producing the vaccines necessary for inoculating the global population from COVID-19.