Central body set to boost biotech

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Central body set to boost biotech

The government plans to form a high-level group to coordinate policies and accelerate investment in the biotech industry.

According to the Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning on Sunday, the government confirmed the plan to establish a special committee on biotechnology at the 11th National Science & Technology Council held on Thursday.

Temporarily dubbed as “Special Committee on Biotechnology,” the new body will be led by Hong Nam-ki, first vice minister for science, ICT and future planning. Deputy ministers of related ministries and private biotech experts will be nominated to the committee, which is expected to have a total membership of less than 20.

The biotechnology industry has recently attracted new investments in research and development (R&D) as the sector is rising as a new growth engine for the Korean economy.

Due to the growth, the government sees the need to incorporate divisions and functions which are presently scattered at different government branches. The intention is to form a single group to streamline and coordinate policies that will help nurture the industry.

“The special committee on biotechnology will put together the sprawled biotech policies and organize them in a coherent manner,” the ministry said in a press release. “Its policies will help companies plan new R&D investments, attract funds and commercialize the businesses.”

The Future Planning Ministry has been governing the biomedical technology development sector, while the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy has been overseeing the biomedicine equipment and device sector. Bio industry technology has been handled by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, while discovery and research on biological resources are controlled by the Ministry of Environment.

“Because of the absence of a ‘control tower,’ basic information about the industry is not being shared, causing each firm to spend on overlapping areas,” said an industry insider. “Procedures to commercialize new products are also complicated.”

There are a total 975 biotech companies in Korea as of 2014, but 60 percent are start-ups with limited financial resources. The local biotech market is valued at 7.6 trillion won ($6.3 billion), which is low compared to other developed countries.

Korean biotech companies have started going abroad in the last two to three years. Many of them are expected to yield achievements this year.

“Since the local market is yet too small to grow, many are seeking ways to grow outside the country,” said an industry insider.

A good example of companies looking overseas is Celltrion, a biomedicine company based in Songdo, Incheon. The company’s copy of Johnson & Johnson’s best-selling rheumatoid arthritis treatment Remicade received a recommendation in February for approval from advisers to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

With the recommendation, Celltrion is one step closer to winning approval for sales in the United States and becoming the second biosimilar product ever approved in the world’s largest pharmaceutical market. It could be approved for the U.S. market in April at the earliest. Remsima was approved to be sold in Europe in 2013.

The biotech industry is divided into various sectors, including pharmaceuticals, food, health care and environment. The pharmaceutical and food sectors account for 60 percent of the total. Industry experts predict the pharmaceutical sector will grow most rapidly.

The size of the global pharmaceutical market was about $781 billion last year, of which 23 percent, or $179 billion, came from biologic drugs, which are made from living organisms rather than chemical synthesis. The biologic drug sector is growing faster than chemically synthesized drugs, and its market size is expected to reach $278 billion by 2020.

Samsung also plans to get aggressively involved in making both biosimilars and new biologic treatments by launching a specialized subsidiary called “Samsung Bioepis” in December. Samsung Bioepis aims to become the No. 1 biosimilar manufacturer in the world by 2018. Its first biosimilar Benepali won approval from the European Commission in January for sales in 28 EU member countries.

Chong Kun Dang Pharmaceutical Corp. signed a contract with Japan’s Fuji Pharma Co. in January to sell its biosimilar Nesp, an anemia treatment, to the country.

“As witnessed in recent cases of biotechnology exports by some pharmaceutical companies, biotechnology is a new growth engine for our future growth,” said an official at the Future Planning Ministry. “The industry was in need of establishment of such a body to coordinate related policies.”

One of the complaints from the industry is that it takes more than a year to win approval from the government even after more than 10 years of clinical tests. “In the global competition for new drugs these days, not only the companies’ development pace but also the government’s speed in the approving procedures are important,” said an executive at a biotech company.

BY SONG SU-HYUN, PARK TAE-HEE [song.suhyun@joongang.co.kr]

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