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South Korea in talks with mRNA vaccine makers to prepare up to 1 billion doses: government official

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SEOUL – South Korea is in talks with mRNA vaccine manufacturers, including Pfizer and Moderna, to produce COVID-19 injections in the country and is ready to offer the ability to prepare up to 1 billion doses immediately, said a senior government official.

The plan, if agreed, would help facilitate the limited global supply of COVID-19 vaccines, particularly in Asia, which lags behind North America and Europe in vaccine launches, and would take South Korea one step further. close to its ambition to become a major vaccine manufacturing center.

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South Korea already has agreements to locally produce three coronavirus vaccines developed by AstraZeneca / Oxford University, Novavax and Russia. It also has a vaccine packaging and packaging contract with Moderna.

“We have been having frequent discussions with large pharmaceutical companies to produce mRNA vaccines,” Lee Kang-ho, director general of the committee of the global vaccine center of the South Korean Ministry of Health, told Reuters in an interview.

“There are only a few developers of mRNA vaccines: Pfizer, Moderna, CureVac and BioNTech. Therefore, there is a limit to how much they can produce to meet global demand … South Korea stands ready to help by offering its facilities and trained human resources, ”said Lee.

It is not immediately clear how far along these talks are and if and when an agreement will be reached.

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BioNTech declined to comment, Moderna and CureVac did not respond to requests for comment from Reuters.

A Pfizer spokesperson said the company is making efforts to improve its COVID-19 vaccine supply chain, but added that “we don’t have anything specific to announce at this time.”

Lee declined to name local vaccine manufacturers that have the ability to produce mRNA vaccines right away, but a government source said they include Hanmi Pharmaceuticals Co Ltd and Quratis Co Ltd.

Hanmi confirmed that it has a large capacity reserved for Sanofi’s diabetes drug and that it can be used for COVID-19 vaccine production as the Sanofi project has stalled.

“We happen to have this facility available at the moment because our clinical trial (with Sanofi) was suspended in the middle of last year,” Kim Soo-jin, Hanmi’s senior vice president, told Reuters.

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“It is very timely that we have a state-of-the-art facility fully ready, GMP available,” he said, referring to good manufacturing practices.

Quratis, which makes a tuberculosis vaccine, said its new factory built last year can now be used for the production of mRNA vaccines.

Hanmi’s shares erased initial losses and rose nearly 7% on Monday after the Reuters report, and its largest shareholder, Hanmi Science, was up 10.3%.

COLLABORATION WITH WHO

South Korea has stepped up its efforts to produce more vaccines since US President Joe Biden agreed in May with South Korean President Moon Jae-in a comprehensive partnership on COVID-19 vaccines.

Lee said his team has frequent video conferences with vaccine manufacturers and the World Health Organization (WHO).

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WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic told Reuters the organization is “talking to South Korea and other countries” but did not elaborate.

The WHO said last month that it will establish a center in South Africa to manufacture mRNA vaccines within 9 to 12 months that will provide companies in poor and middle-income countries with the knowledge and licenses to produce COVID-19 vaccines.

Lee said mRNA vaccine manufacturers may be reluctant to share their technology, but they can leverage South Korean raw material suppliers to address global shortages of ingredients such as lipids, nucleotides and protective reagents.

“They are capable of manufacturing and developing those raw materials to help vaccine manufacturers … and the South Korean government is committed to providing all necessary support, including financial and administrative assistance.”

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Lee said the country also has capacity for at least another 500 million doses of fill and finish vaccines, in addition to the deal Moderna announced with Samsung BioLogics in May.

South Korea has agreements to purchase 106 million doses of mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna to cover the full vaccination of its population of 52 million this year. The government said last week that it would buy more injections of mRNA to use as a booster vaccine next year. (Reporting by Sangmi Cha in Seoul; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Michael Erman in New York and Ludwig Burger in Frankfurt; Edited by Miyoung Kim, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Louise Heavens)

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