Securing and developing vaccines
The author is a professor of biotechnology at Yonsei University and director-general of the Vaccine Innovative Technology Alliance Korea.
Global pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer and Moderna are announcing clinical trial outcomes of the Covid-19 vaccines one after another. Korea also formed an inter-governmental support committee in April to devise a strategy for vaccination. Efficiency is important for a vaccine, but safety is more important. In order to supply vaccines by meticulously considering efficacy and safety, long-time investment, research and development are necessary. But in a pandemic, development has to be fast. There are many difficulties in reducing the 10 or 15-year-long development period to one year.
Many people are skeptical if the Korean government will be able to secure enough vaccines to protect the entire population. Experts point out that a single solution is too risky to end the spread of the virus. As the pandemic is caused by a novel virus, there is no commercialized vaccine for fast mass production yet. In an uncertain circumstance, the government must implement at least two policies at the same time.
First, it should secure vaccines already developed overseas. As there is a fierce competition to obtain enough doses of vaccine, we should help stop one country from monopolizing it. Through the Covax — formally known as the Covid-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility — all countries, including Korea, should have equal supplies of the vaccine.
For the possible choices of vaccines, a priority evaluation is crucial. In addition to safety and efficacy, we must consider price, supply schedule and purchase terms. Since this is a global competition, the government needs to keep its purchase negotiations secret.
As global companies are scheduled to supply vaccines as early as this year’s end, skepticism may arise whether we have to continue our domestic vaccine development, which is about one year behind. Efficacy of a made-in-Korea vaccine is also uncertain. But Korea’s vaccine production facilities which meet the GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) standards are praised by the world, and foreign companies want to use Korean facilities for their production or joint development of vaccines.
Strategic cooperation with global pharmaceutical firms seeking to produce their vaccines in Korea offers the country a chance to secure vaccines developed by them. Furthermore, a plan to secure vaccines through joint development is also being pushed. When we succeed, we can use the vaccines purchased from global firms first and then use the domestically developed vaccine later. If Covid-19 becomes a new type of recurring disease just like influenza, we can continue using made-in-Korea vaccines in the longer term.
At the same time, we need to deal with other pandemics in the future. Saying there are about 10 viruses that can trigger a pandemic, the World Health Organization urged the world to establish a global vaccine platform. Domestic development of vaccines not only fights Covid-19 but also upgrades Korea’s response to various infectious diseases. We must use the current situation to elevate Korea’s capability to develop vaccines to establish a quick-reaction platform for the future.
Vaccine technology requires time. England has a 200-year history since Edward Jenner developed the first-ever vaccine for smallpox. The Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford is the leader in the efforts to develop a Covid-19 vaccine. Korea’s investments to develop the Covid-19 vaccine must serve as an opportunity to reduce the 200-year gap to 20 years.