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Korea's Sputnik V production consortium faces uncertainties

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Russia's COVID-19 vaccine, Sputnik V / AP-Newsis
Russia's COVID-19 vaccine, Sputnik V / AP-Newsis

By Kim Bo-eun

Almost a year has passed since the Hankook Korus Pharm-led consortium was assigned to produce Russia's COVID-19 vaccine, Sputnik V, but production continues to be delayed. The consortium is facing uncertainties as its Russian partner is known to have requested the terms of an earlier agreement to be changed.

Hankook Korus Pharm's parent company, GL Rapha, set up a contract with the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) for the consortium of Korean companies to undertake Sputnik V's production in February last year.

The consortium and the RDIF had initially agreed to produce 500 million of Sputnik V's first doses. Nevertheless industry sources stated that the RDIF requested in November last year that the consortium produce the vaccine's second doses, which has different components from the first. The production yield of Sputnik V's second dose is lower under current production capacities, and therefore less profitable, according to industry officials.

The consortium initially had seven members but it has changed over the past year, and now the group consists of five members: Hankook Korus Pharm, ISU Abxis, Jetema, Quratis and Boryung Biopharma. Chong Kun Dang Bio recently decided to pull out of the consortium, stating it is seeking to focus on its botulinum toxin business. Binex, another firm that was formerly part of the consortium, also left earlier, over differences with the RDIF in the use of production equipment.

The RDIF did not respond to requests from The Korea Times to confirm the changes it is seeking in the contract with the consortium of Korean bio companies.

Hankook Korus Pharm said the departure of member companies would not affect the consortium's capacity to produce Sputnik V. The company is seeking to produce the vaccine's first dose, and for the remaining firms in the consortium to produce the second dose. The remaining firms stated they are willing to produce the second dose, despite chances of lower profitability.

Jetema and ISU Abxis are seeking to reach out to the RDIF individually, to speed up the production process, which has been delayed over the past year.

"Hankook Korus Pharm has played a leading role in the consortium up until now, but we are seeking to negotiate directly with the RDIF, to speed up the process," a spokesperson of one of the consortium's member firms said.

"In order to produce Sputnik V's second dose, we need to receive technological transfers from Russia, and we are currently reaching out to initiate this."

Uncertainty has prevailed over Russia's COVID-19 vaccine, as Sputnik V has yet to receive approval from the World Health Organization, while supply of U.S. vaccines such as Pfizer and Moderna has grown.

Yet Hankook Korus Pharm dismissed such concerns, stating it expects there will continue to be sufficient demand for the vaccine, given there is a dire shortage of vaccines in developing countries.

"Pfizer and Moderna's vaccines are pricey and require cold chains that many developing countries do not have the infrastructure for," the company's spokesman said.

"We expect for production of Sputnik V to launch when the details of producing the second dosage is settled, and this could be within the first half of this year, at the earliest."

The Hankook Korus Pharm official said production facilities are ready to manufacture the vaccine. The company began producing Sputnik Light, Russia's single dose COVID-19 vaccine, last year.

Kim Bo-eun

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