Korea and U.S. agree to form a vaccine partnership

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Korea and U.S. agree to form a vaccine partnership

President Moon Jae-in, center, attends the signing ceremony for a supply agreement between Samsung Biologics CEO John Lee, left, and Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel in Washington, Saturday. [YONHAP]

President Moon Jae-in, center, attends the signing ceremony for a supply agreement between Samsung Biologics CEO John Lee, left, and Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel in Washington, Saturday. [YONHAP]

Korea and the United States have committed to forming a vaccine partnership to cooperate on supplying Covid-19 vaccines globally and on the development of vaccine technologies.  
 
"The aim is to combine U.S. vaccine technology and Korea's bio production capacity to boost global vaccine supply and contribute to bringing an early end to the Covid-19 pandemic," President Moon Jae-in said during an event held in Washington, Saturday.
 
The KORUS Global Vaccine Partnership was mentioned in the United States-Republic of Korea Partnership statement, in which the two countries pledged to work together on a wide range of issues of mutual interest. Few details were provided on the structure, funding or operations of the proposed venture.  
 
"The U.S. will be able to solidify its leadership in vaccines, and Korea is now given the opportunity to boost technology and capacity in bio vaccines," Moon added. "We will swiftly expand production capacity to meet worldwide demand and fulfill our new role as a global vaccine supply hub."
 
The session was attended by U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, Korean government officials, the CEOs of Moderna, Novavax and Samsung Biologics and Chey Tae-won, chairman of SK Group.  
 
Four MOUs were signed at the event, all of which are linked to expanding production of Covid-19 vaccines in Korea or R&D partnerships in vaccine technology.  
 
Three out of four involved Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Moderna, whose Covid-19 vaccine became the fourth to be approved for use in Korea, Friday.  
 
Samsung Biologics signed a contract manufacturing agreement. The Korean bio company will provide "fill-finish" manufacturing for Moderna's Covid-19 vaccines, meaning it will receive vaccine in bulk from overseas and take charge of packaging it for commercial distribution.  
  
"Hundreds of billions" of Moderna Covid-19 vaccines will roll out from Samsung Biologics Incheon facilities from the third quarter, the companies said, and sent to markets outside of the United States. It wasn't specified how much of that volume will be reserved for Korea.
 
"For the sake of distribution efficiency and ensuring stable vaccine supply, we will continue talks with the supplier so that local production can lead to domestic supply as well," said Jung Eun-young, a ministry of health and welfare director, during a press conference Sunday.
 
In addition, Moderna signed an agreement with Korea's ministries of health and trade to make investments in the country. The U.S. bio firm plans to establish a local office, this year which involves setting up production facilities and hiring skilled workforce in biopharmaceuticals. The ministries will support the rapid execution of investment plans, such as proposing locations for Moderna's factory.
 
With the state-run National Institute of Health, Moderna signed a separate deal to cooperate in developing mRNA vaccines for not only Covid-19 but other diseases as well.  
 
Moderna is one of the two companies in the world, along with Pfizer, that succeeded in developing an mRNA Covid-19 vaccine, a relatively young technology that requires a high degree of sophistication.  
 
"Korea has won contract manufacturing deals for Covid-19 viral vector vaccines, but the recent deal is a meaningful one because it's our first in mRNA vaccines," said Kang Do-tae, second vice minister of health and welfare.  
 
Korea's SK Bioscience is currently producing Covid-19 vaccines for AstraZeneca, while Huons Global is manufacturing Russia's Sputnik V. Both are viral vector vaccines, not mRNA.
 
Novavax also signed an agreement during the event with SK Bioscience and the health ministry on the development and local production of its Covid-19 viral vector vaccine.  
 
SK Bioscience was named a contract manufacturer of Novavax's vaccines in August last year. The company has already started manufacturing Novavax vaccines and is waiting for a use approval from the country's drug authorities.  
 
Novavax has been in talks with SK Bioscience and government officials to extend the production period. Its latest agreement with Korea includes conducting research for vaccines targeting other diseases.
 
"The core of the vaccine partnership is that U.S. technology will come together with Korea's production capacity to build a foundation for mass producing vaccines in this country," said Kang.  
 
"I believe it will play a big role in raising Korea's international status as an active participant in solving the global vaccine supply issue. That recognition in production technology and quality control could also lead to further stabilizing vaccine supply in the country."  
 
Korea has ordered 192 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines this year and aims to reach herd immunity by November.  
 
BY SONG KYOUNG-SON  [song.kyoungson@joongang.co.kr]
 
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