Losing the vaccine race
The author is a columnist of JoongAng Ilbo.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun admitted that the government had not considered the urgency of buying vaccines in the second quarter of last year as the number of cases wasn’t so bad. In July, anxieties rose about the Moon Jae-in administration’s slow procurement process. Officials at the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said they could not aggressively pursue vaccine procurement in fear of punishment if things went wrong. But what they lacked was not the will, but information and intelligence. Since they were unsure, they could not bet on vaccines with confidence.
On July 24 last year, shares of coronavirus vaccine frontrunner Moderna fell 10 percent, whereas those of Arbutus Biopharma jumped 120 percent after the smaller bio firm won a patent dispute that could have had implications for Moderna’s vaccine rollout. An administrative court under the U.S. Patent Trademark Office rejected arguments from Moderna that an Arbutus patent related to lipid nanoparticle (LNP) technology should be revoked because it described obvious concepts. The technology enabling the human body to make its own therapeutic proteins was patented by Arbutus as a “surprising discovery” whereas Moderna contested the novelty behind it as the company would have to pay upfront fees and royalties for using the nanotechnology crucial in delivering mRNA in utero safely and effectively. The LNP technology wraps the mRNA in a protective bubble to not only carry it to a human cell but also act as an adjuvant.
After the patent battle, Moderna paid hefty royalties to Arbutus to use the LNP technology. As a result, its mRNA-based vaccines could be stored at regular freezer temperatures — minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit) — whereas Pfizer’s must be kept at minus 70 degrees Celsius in special freezers.
Moderna was able to use the new technology thanks to a U.S. government subsidy on vaccine developments. In exchange for a $995 million subsidy for royalties in late July, the U.S. government was promised 100 million doses of Moderna vaccines in August with an upfront payment of $1.5 billion. Israel and Japan followed the U.S. move and signed contracts with Moderna.
At the time, the Korean government was patting itself on the back for its successful mitigation campaign and seemed confident about Korean bio companies’ ability to churn out homemade vaccines and treatments in no time. At the time, the government paid greater attention to attacking the prosecution.
The U.S. government’s bet on vaccine is owed much to Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House coronavirus task force. He reiterated his confidence in the efficacy and safety of mRNA vaccines despite the novelty in the messenger RNA concept.
Katalin Kariko, a biochemist and senior vice president at BioNTech, and her longtime collaborator at the University of Pennsylvania, immunologist Drew Weissman, who pioneered the key in the custom-made messenger RNA through the incorporation of modified nucleosides, have emerged as the strongest candidates for this year’s Nobel Prize winners in chemistry. Kariko found an enthusiast in Weissman while striking up a conversation in front of a printer at a Penn lab back in 1997. Weissman worked for seven years in the 1990s with Fauci, who has led the U.S. coronavirus task force. Fauci had been long acquainted with progress in vaccines using mRNA to deliver a coded message to the body to be highly effective at preventing novel coronavirus.
Virus testing and social distancing are just actions to buy time before vaccines arrive. They are based on huge sacrifices by medical professionals and self-employed businesses. They cannot be a solution to fight Covid-19. The U.S. and Europe are way ahead in vaccine discovery due to their long history of basic science development. Moreover, Korea lacks the number of infected patients needed for clinical trials. Japan, France, Israel and Australia coolly acknowledged the gap in resourcing and capabilities in vaccine discovery and instead closely studied the vaccine development progress in the U.S. and Europe to move fast in procurement.
Korea has been over-confident in Korean bio capabilities even when they lag far behind in developing vaccines and treatments, said Pai Jin-keon, senior vice president of InnoCure Therapeutics. The government’s hype about self-sufficiency in cures and vaccines has flopped. Discoveries of vaccines won’t likely come before next year, and a cure by Celltrion cannot be deemed as a game-changer as it is focused on mitigating the spread and is questionably effective at dealing with mutations in the virus.
If Fauci was heading a coronavirus task force in Korea, he would have been sacked long ago. Politicians would have called for his head for his bet on Moderna vaccines. But President-elect Joe Biden asked him to stay at the command as soon as he was declared the winner of the election.
The conservative opposition in Korea also must stop politicizing vaccines. Moderna’s mRNA vaccine and Pfizer labels are not the only solution. Nam Jae-hwan, a professor of biotechnoloygy at the Catholic University of Korea, pointed out that all three vaccines from Moderna, Pfizer and AstfraZeneca proved highly effective in clinical trials. No one has developed serious illness after they were vaccinated in a clinical trial. In vaccine programs, efficacy, accessibility and pricing are all important. The question is how to achieve collective immunity fast and effectively through multiple vaccines, the professor added.