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Korea's bio industry at turning point after pandemic

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SK succeeds in developing COVID vaccine; Samsung on course to be top CDMO firm

By Baek Byung-yeul

SK Bioscience, Samsung Biologics and other Korean biotech companies are soaring to new heights as they succeed in locally developing vaccines, winning orders to manufacture the drugs and developing treatments for COVID-19, according industry officials, Thursday.

"It is obvious that the pandemic raised the importance of securing proprietary vaccine development and manufacturing technologies, and the achievements of domestic companies were possible because they have realized the importance of the biotech business and have tried to secure their own technological capabilities," an official from a local biotech company said asking not to be named.

One of the latest achievements of the local biotech industry can be seen in SK Bioscience, which succeeded in developing the country's first COVID-19 vaccine, SKYCovione.

On June 29, the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety said it granted the company an approval to sell its recombinant protein-based COVID-19 vaccine in the Korean market.

With the vaccine development, Korea became the third country to develop its own COVID-19 vaccine and treatment following the United States and the U.K.

Korea already had a COVID-19 treatment developed by local biotech company Celltrion.

SK Bioscience jointly developed the vaccine with GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and the University of Washington's Institute for Protein Design (IPD). SK Bioscience has proven the vaccine, also known as GBP510, has a higher preventative effect than existing vaccines by conducting clinical trials in six countries: New Zealand, the Philippines, Thailand, Ukraine, Vietnam and South Korea.

The company is conducting clinical trials on booster shots to increase the utilization of vaccines, in which two shots must be given four weeks apart, and is also preparing clinical trials for children and adolescents. It is currently allowed for use on adults.

An SK Group spokesman said, "SK was able to grow into a major bio company in Korea thanks to Chey Jong-hyun, former chairman of the group, who drew up a plan to secure the country's sovereignty in biotechnology and Chey Tae-won, his son and the current chairman of the group who has actively invested in the sector."

The former chairman established a laboratory in 1987 and conducted research activities in four areas ― synthetic drugs, natural drugs, medication and other biotechnologies. After receiving the baton, Chairman Chey Tae-won also led the development and production of new drugs and vaccines through SK Bioscience and SK Biopharmaceuticals.

Samsung Biologics researchers work on drug development. Courtesy of Samsung Biologics
Samsung Biologics researchers work on drug development. Courtesy of Samsung Biologics

While SK Group succeeded in developing a COVID-19 vaccine, Samsung Biologics, a unit of Samsung Group, has increased its presence in biopharmaceutical production, including vaccines, after the pandemic.

Under the government's plan to turn Korea into a global vaccine hub, Samsung Biologics, the world's largest contract-based drug manufacturer, has emerged in the global drug manufacturing market, mass producing COVID-19 vaccines developed by global biotech companies including Moderna's vaccine since the third quarter of 2021.

Samsung has been in charge of filling Moderna's vaccine into vials and packaging them. The leader in the contract manufacturing organization (CMO) business now aims to become a leader in the contract development and manufacturing organization or CDMO business by providing an end-to-end biopharmaceutical service from laboratory research to clinical trials.

The company also said it recently added an mRNA vaccine ingredient production facility at its third plant in Songdo, west of Seoul, to capitalize on the fast-growing business of manufacturing mRNA technology-based drugs.

"Samsung Biologics' Plant 4 is currently under construction to begin operations by the end of this year, and the company is steadily securing pre-sales with clients. Upon the full completion of the plant in 2023, the company is expected to possess the world's largest bio-manufacturing capacity," the Samsung subsidiary said in a statement.

Gov't vows bold support to foster bio industry

Taking the pandemic-led crisis as an opportunity, the government aims to make the bio industry become one of Korea's major industrial sectors along with high-tech industries such as semiconductors, displays and electric vehicle batteries.

The Yoon Suk-yeol government recently included four technologies related to the vaccine development and biotechnology sectors on the list of the country's 100 key strategic technologies. This was the first time the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy put these four technologies on the list to support the further development of the local bio industry.

The technologies included on the list are key technologies for producing vaccines and biopharmaceuticals, such as mRNA or proteins necessary for vaccine development, lipid nanoparticle technology necessary for vaccine formulation, cell gene therapy technology and device manufacturing technology for cell culture.

Companies developing the technology can receive state support, such as eased environmental and employment regulations, tax deductions and simplifying investment procedures when participating in government-supported technology development projects.

"We expect that putting the four technologies on the key strategic technologies list will lead to more active cooperation and investment between suppliers and companies requiring services," said Lee Kyung-ho, director general of materials, parts and equipment cooperation at the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy.

"The government will implement its plan to foster the country's materials, parts and equipment industries without a hitch to secure solid competitiveness in core items that are highly dependent on foreign countries," the director general added.

Chae Su-chan, a former professor and director of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology's (KAIST) Center for Bio-Healthcare Innovation and Policy, said the government needs to provide more policy support from a long-term perspective, because developing new drugs and vaccines takes a lot longer than developing a new product in other industries and the chances of failure are also incredibly high.

"The country's R&D expenditures in the biotech industry are only about one-tenth compared to the amount invested by one of the global biopharmaceutical companies. The development of new drugs and new vaccines can take nearly 10 years from clinical trials to approval. These areas are the sectors where the government's support is desperately needed," he said.

Korea's R&D spending in the biotech industry is very low. In its financial disclosure, Pfizer said its R&D spending for 2021 stood at $13.829 billion, while Korean companies' total biopharmaceutical R&D spending in 2020 was 1.4771 trillion won ($1.13 billion), according to the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy's 2021 data.

Baek Byung-yeul

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