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Two Asian pharmas hold key for global supply of Oxford vaccine

India's Serum aims for 400m doses in 2020; S Korea's SK Bioscience keen on exports

Oxford University and AstraZeneca are tying up with Asian companies for mass production of the Oxford vaccine, which this photo shows being injected into a trial participant's arm. (Photo courtesy of Oxford University via AP)

MUMBAI/SEOUL -- Two Asian pharmaceutical companies are poised to become key players in the global fight against the new coronavirus pandemic after they were tapped to help mass-produce a promising new vaccine for the disease, which has already killed 650,000 worldwide and infected over 16 million.

Serum Institute of India and South Korea's SK Bioscience have reached an agreement to produce a vaccine developed by Oxford University and British pharmaceutical group AstraZeneca. The vaccine showed a robust immune response in its early trial phases during which it was tested on 1,077 participants, according to findings published in The Lancet medical journal on July 20.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is said to be among the forerunners in the inoculation development race, along with one developed by China's CanSino Biologics and another by Germany's BioNTech and U.S.-based Pfizer.

On the assumption that the vaccine will eventually prove effective and safe, the developers aim to have an annual production capacity of over 2 billion doses. To ramp up capacity and build a global supply chain of the vaccine, AstraZeneca and the Asian companies have signed contracts to be production partners.

"Based on the success of the trials, we will manufacture about 60 million to 70 million doses per month which might stretch to 100 million doses later. With this, we are looking to manufacture around 300 million to 400 million doses by the end of this year," Serum Institute CEO Adar Poonawalla told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Referring to the vaccine by its planned Indian name, the chief executive said: "If all trial results and approvals go smoothly as planned, we expect 'Covishield' to be available by end of this year." However, he added that "accessibility and administration of the vaccine across the population might be arduous in the initial phases."

A researcher in a Serum laboratory in Pune. The company expects the Oxford vaccine, which it is already producing, to be available as early as the end of this year.   © Reuters

Serum Institute, one of the world's largest vaccine makers by volume, aims to manufacture 1 billion doses over the next year for India and other low-and-middle-income countries, Poonawalla said.

The global economy has been battered by the pandemic, and people around the world are waiting for a vaccine to take them back to normal as soon as possible.

Major countries, including the United States, China and Japan as well as European nations, are racing to secure stable vaccine supplies for their own populations. It is essential to establish a large production base so that the vaccine can be supplied to financially fragile emerging countries.

"Today marks an important step in helping us supply hundreds of millions of people around the world, including to those in countries with the lowest means," said AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot after reaching a licensing agreement with Serum Institute in June. "We will work closely with AstraZeneca to ensure fair and equitable distribution of the vaccine in [low- and middle-income] countries," echoed Serum Institute's Poonawalla.

Serum Institute, headquartered in India's western city of Pune, has previously worked with the Oxford team on a malaria vaccine.

Life sciences consultant Utkarsh Palnitkar believes that Serum Institute's proven capabilities make it the most prominent vaccine manufacturer that complies with multiple regulatory standards. "India has very strong capabilities in vaccine manufacturing. It is an important participant in universal immunization programs," he said.

South Korea's SK Bioscience, meanwhile, has yet to discuss the size of production of the vaccine with AstraZeneca but its agreement includes cooperation for the stable production and export of the product, as well as increasing production capacity to meet the increased demand, and supplying the South Korean market.

The Seongnam-headquartered company on July 21 signed a three-party letter of intent with AstraZeneca and South Korea's health ministry to cooperate on the global supply of the vaccine.

"It is the first time that a local company joined the global market's supply chain for an excellent vaccine which draws global attention," the health ministry said in a statement. "It means that a local company's production skills are recognized internationally."

Investors reacted quickly to the news. Shares of SK Chemicals, which owns 98.04% of SK Bioscience, soared by the daily upper limit of 30% to 232,000 won ($193) on July 23 and reached 310,000 won by Monday's close.

SK Bioscience has successfully developed vaccines for pediatric gastroenteritis, typhoid fever and cervical cancer. Taking part in the global supply chain for the COVID-19 vaccine will boost the company's presence on the global stage.

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