Colombia's health minister hopes to make vaccines locally

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Colombia's health minister hopes to make vaccines locally

Colombian Minister of Health and Social Protection Fernando Ruiz speaks with the Korea JoongAng Daily at the Embassy of Colombia in Seoul on Thursday. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Colombian Minister of Health and Social Protection Fernando Ruiz speaks with the Korea JoongAng Daily at the Embassy of Colombia in Seoul on Thursday. [PARK SANG-MOON]

 
Colombia is hoping to produce vaccines locally with assistance from Korea in the next few years, Colombian Minister of Health and Social Protection Fernando Ruiz said Thursday.
 
“We think [Covid-19] is going to move from a pandemic to an endemic [disease], and we will have to deal with Covid-19 for the next two to three years,” Ruiz told the Korea JoongAng Daily at the Embassy of Colombia in Seoul on Thursday. “And we may have to vaccinate people every year to keep them protected from the virus. We need to develop our vaccine production capacity.”
 
Ruiz traveled to Korea this week as part of the Colombian delegation led by President Iván Duque Márquez, marking the first Colombian state visit to Korea in 10 years.
 
Health experts around the world have estimated that complete eradication of the Covid-19 virus may not be technically feasible, given the continued mutations of the virus and stronger variants giving rise to additional waves of infections.
 
Colombia, like Korea and other countries, has seen a surge in cases accompanying the rise of the Delta variant in recent months, with daily infections surpassing 30,000 for the first time since the onset of the pandemic, in late June. The recent wave, the country’s third since the onset, resulted in a couple of weekend lockdowns in Bogota, the capital, in April.
 
Neither Colombia nor Korea are vaccine-manufacturing countries at the moment. The governments of Colombia and Korea have signed deals with vaccine companies abroad to purchase Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Janssen and Moderna vaccines. About 43 percent of Colombia’s population has received their first dose of vaccines, and about half in Korea.
 
But SK Bioscience in Korea may be close to producing its own vaccine, GBP510, by early 2022.
 
SK Bioscience and International Vaccine Institute (IVI) based in Seoul are implementing the third phase of clinical trials of GBP510, to test its efficacy with thousands of residents in Europe, Southeast Asia and other regions. If the results, expected in early 2022, are promising, it could make the company the first Korean manufacturer to develop a vaccine in Korea.
 
This week, Colombia signed agreements with the two.
 
“The agreement is about working together to start a facility in Colombia for vaccine research and development,” Ruiz said. “The last time that Colombia produced vaccines was in 2001, so our main objectives of this trip to Korea include getting some technological transfers. Through my meetings with SK Bioscience, Celltrion and other companies in Korea, we are assessing what kinds of projects we can feasibly do together in Colombia.”
 
When asked about when might be the earliest point that Colombia would be able to produce its own vaccines at a facility created with Korea, Ruiz projected, “at least two years and a half, if everything goes well.”
 
Korea is also injecting some $4.5 million this year to help Hospital Engativa in Bogota set up a post-Covid treatment protocol. Korea International Cooperation Agency (Koica), Korea’s government agency on overseas development assistance, is implementing the funding and the project.
 
“The project will focus on developing a specific protocol for the hospital on treating people with long-term consequences from Covid-19 infection,” Ruiz said. “Because projects from Korea tend to focus on specific purposes and have a multilateral approach, they are much welcomed from the Colombian perspective.”
 
Korea last year also shared information on installing the walk-through and drive-through testing centers with Colombia, assisting Engativa Hospital with machines that can extract RNA or conduct PCR tests and 40 respirators.
 
The help came when they needed it most, Ruiz recalled.
 
“In the beginning stages of the pandemic, we had not yet the capacities to conduct lab tests on Covid-19, and Korea’s help was very important at this time,” Ruiz said.
 
Ruiz was sworn into office in early March, 2020. He had experiences in battling the Zika outbreak in 2016 and the Chikungunya outbreak in 2015 — when Colombia is reported to have suffered the highest number of suspected cases of Chikungunya in the Americas. But what he didn’t foresee was that he would be dealing with a pandemic from his third day on the job. Colombia confirmed its first Covid-19 infection case on March 6, 2020.
 
“There was just a lot of uncertainty about the pandemic in the beginning,” Ruiz said. “But as leaders, you have to make decisions, and even at times when there isn't enough evidence. The handling of the pandemic is crucial for a developing country like Colombia, because its economy can be fragile.
 
“We are still fighting the pandemic, no country is free from it yet,” he said. “As difficult as that situation is, I have found that communication with the people is the most important. We are now working on getting the message across to the people on the importance of getting vaccinated, to protect themselves and to protect their loved ones."
 
As one of the final agendas of the state visit, President Duque and the delegation in Korea on Thursday visited the Seoul National University Bundang Hospital in Gyeonggi to see first-hand the real-time monitoring of intensive care units.
 
The delegation returned to Bogota on Thursday evening, concluding the three-day state visit.

BY ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]
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