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  • [Reporter’s View] COVID-19 and vaccine self-sufficiency
  • by An, Kyung-Jin | translator Byun Kyung A | May 18, 2020 06:15am
The U.S. and Europe have sparked a conflict over COVID-19 vaccine still in development. The tension arose when a multinational pharmaceutical company Sanofi announced its intention to prioritize the distribution of the vaccine to the U.S., in case the company successfully completes the development.

During an interview with Bloomberg, Sanofi’s British CEO Paul Hudson who newly took over the office in last September said, “The U.S. government has the right to the largest pre-order because it’s invested in taking the risk,” so “the Americans will likely get Sanofi’s COVID-19 vaccine before the rest of the world.” Along with its competitor GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), the French-based multinational company has initiated COVID-19 vaccine co-development project. And apparently, the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) has provided USD 30 million (approximately 36.8 billion won) for the project

Immediately after the news was released, the whole of Europe was shaken. Particularly, the reaction from France, where Sanofi’s headquarters and manufacturing plants are housed, was rough. The French government was infuriated by the pharmaceutical company’s public comment as the country and the EU have been often giving direct and indirect support for the company’s R&D programs. French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe reproached by twitting “A #COVID19 vaccine should be a global public good. And the equal access to the vaccine is not negotiable.” The European Commission official also published a statement insisting that “The vaccine against COVID-19 should be a global public good and its access needs to be equitable and universal.”

The pharmaceutical industry experts are claiming the international cooperation has worsened as the EU intervened the U.S. and China’s race for the COVID-19 vaccine. Some are concerned that a war on exclusive pre-ordering of the vaccine in development may break out.

Eventually, CEO Hudson took back his words, as his ‘America-first’ comment has inflicted a firestorm. When the vaccine is fully developed, he said all countries around the world would have an equal access to the vaccine. But the CEO also urged “the European countries should also assertively take risks on the vaccine development like the U.S.” He pointed out how the U.S. is taking a risk even before scientifically confirming the success of the vaccine development, whereas the European countries have not. The CEO also argued the risk should be shared among European countries and the U.S.

Sanofi CEO’s comment also rings in a grave tone in Korea as well, where the country has not yet fully resolved the vaccine self-sufficiency issue. When Green Cross established the Hwasun vaccine plant in 2009, South Korea has become the 12th country in the world to locally procure flu vaccine. The locally made vaccine is viewed as the top contributor in overcoming the 2010 flu pandemic. Although it has been a decade since then, Korea’s self-sufficiency rate in vaccine has not improved much.

Out of 19 National Immunization Program (NIP) vaccine types, only six types—hepatitis B virus, hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome (HFRS), varicella, influenza, tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (Td), Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib)—are locally produced without importing the vaccine strain. Other three vaccine types are locally produced with imported strain, and the rest of the nine types are imported as finished products. In case of a pandemic or biologic terrorism, Korea has to unavoidably rely on other countries for vaccine. When the country cannot even self-procure vaccines long demanded, it is skeptical if Korea would be able to promptly produce vaccine during a novel infectious disease outbreak.

According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) update, total eight cases of clinical studies in COVID-19 vaccine have started their global trial phase. Four of them are funded by Chinese government and corporations. Partnered with a biotechnology company Moderna, the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), associated under the National Institute of Health (NIH), has started a clinical trial for a vaccine against COVID-19 from last month. The U.S. government body aims to report the immunological reaction in around coming July or August.

In Korea, a number of pharmaceutical companies like SK Bioscience, GC Pharma and Genexine are seeking for a vaccine against COVID-19, but the progress is far behind compared to the U.S. or China. The country was able to put the limelight on its promising global level biotechnology as the world highly evaluated Korea’s ability to test the disease. To maintain the outstanding disease control capacity, the Korean government would need to invest and support the vaccine and treatment development, bottomlessly. Korea should let the latest pandemic be the reminder of the necessity of ‘vaccine self-sufficiency.’
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