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COVID vaccines

South Korea, Japan and Taiwan rush to develop homegrown vaccines

Sluggish vaccination rollouts make the three places vulnerable to outbreaks

South Korean President Moon Jae-in inspects a vaccine vial at an SK Bioscience plant in the city of Andong on Jan. 20. His government has come under fire over a slow vaccine rollout. (Source photos by Reuters and EPA/Yonhap/Jiji)

SEOUL/TOKYO/TAIPEI -- Chang Hyo-jung, a senior nurse at a general hospital in New York, is considering going back to her home country of South Korea in October for a four-week vacation. But it is unclear whether she will be able to avoid a two-week quarantine on arrival, even though she has been fully vaccinated with two Pfizer shots in the U.S.

"I wish I could see my family and friends without quarantine," Chang said.

In a shot of good news for Chang, the South Korean government decided on Wednesday to allow people who had at least one dose to go to parks and trails without masks. But authorities said that people have to wear them indoors until the country reaches herd immunity.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 49.5% of the country's total population had received at least one dose of vaccine as of Tuesday, while 39.5% are fully vaccinated. In South Korea, only 7.5% have had one dose, with just 3.6% having completed their vaccination.

When U.S. President Joe Biden took off his mask following the advice of the health authorities two weeks ago, many South Koreans envied him, and lamented their own government's slow response to securing and delivering doses, as well as the development of its own vaccines.

Taiwan, which had been seen as a global role model in containing the COVID-19 spread, is experiencing a similar situation. The island is under pressure to accelerate vaccinations, while waiting for progress in the manufacture of homegrown shots.

The need for vaccines has become apparent in Taiwan after a sudden surge in locally transmitted cases since mid-April. Taiwan on Tuesday reported 542 cases -- the 11th straight day the government counted more than 100 new infections since the pandemic began.

The Japanese government is also facing criticism over its slow pace of vaccine development. A key government advisory panel on Tuesday put forward a set of proposals aimed at strengthening the nation's capacity to develop vaccines.

The three places are keen to develop their own vaccines as soon as possible -- to stem the spread domestically, offer annual booster shots for their populations, and eventually export those jabs.

But this is not an easy task. Health authorities and pharmaceutical companies say it may take months, if not years, for companies to complete their research and get licenses to produce vaccines.

"We are working through the weekends to keep the promise to complete development of COVID-19 vaccine," Woo Jung-won, CEO of Genexine, a South Korean pharmaceutical company, said in an interview with local media earlier this month. "If we give up in the middle [of the development], we may have no options to cope with the next pandemic. Companies and the government should do our best to complete the race for developing vaccines this time."

Genexine is leading the race in the country as the company applied Phase 2/3 clinical trials in March in Indonesia for its DNA vaccine named GX-19N. The company will conduct the test on 1,000 people in five hospitals in the country. At home, Genexine completed shots for 150 participants at six hospitals for its 2a clinical trial earlier this month.

Five South Korean pharma companies are conducting Phase 1 or 2 clinical tests, and some of them are expected to enter Phase 3 later this year, according to the government. SK Bioscience and GeneOne Life Science are undergoing Phase 1 clinical trials for their subunit vaccine and DNA vaccine, respectively.

Cellid also said earlier this month that it completed injection of its AdCLD-CoV19 vaccine for its 2a clinical trial at five hospitals. Two lawmakers in the governing Democratic Party visited Cellid on Thursday to speak with researchers, offering words of encouragement.

"All of the executives and employees are doing our best for the process of clinical trials and success of [vaccine] development to help people have their normal life back," Cellid CEO Kang Chang-yuil said in a statement.

Kang asked the government to issue vaccine passports to the participants of COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials, which he expects will increase the speed of the trials because more people will be willing to participate thanks to the benefit.

In Japan, as many as four companies are developing vaccines. Tokyo-based Daiichi Sankyo is developing a vaccine based on messenger RNA and started a Phase 1/2 clinical trial in March. Osaka-based Shionogi Pharmaceutical uses a baculovirus and a modified spike protein for vaccine production. It started a Phase 1/2 clinical trial in December. Kumamoto-based KM Biologics is developing a traditional inactivated vaccine and started a Phase 1/2 trial in March.

In Taiwan, three companies are working on homegrown COVID vaccines -- Medigen Vaccine Biologics, United Biomedical, and Adimmune. Both Medigen and United Biomedical have entered Phase 2 clinical trials, while Adimmune is falling behind its schedule to enter the Phase 2 clinical trial.

In particular, Medigen has started to produce its COVID-19 vaccine, which will become available once it obtains emergency-use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, local media Taipei Times reported.

The three governments are mobilizing all their resources to support their companies. The National Institute of Health in South Korea is testing samples of participants in clinical trials for SK Bioscience, GeneOne and Cellid, acting as the country's central laboratory. The NIH also signed a memorandum of understanding with Moderna in the U.S. last week to cooperate in studying messenger-RNA vaccines.

The government is hiring a head for the National Virus Basic Institute, which will be launched in the second half of this year to support the country's research and development into this area.

The four Japanese companies together have received at least 48.4 billion yen ($445.4 million) in government subsidies for R&D as well as for production. Under discussion are the development of R&D hubs in Japan, boosting investment in R&D, and expediting the vaccine approval process.

Ideas put forward include the government purchasing more vaccines from Japanese drugmakers and offering higher prices to new medications in general to give manufacturers greater incentive to conduct R&D. Under Japan's single-payer health care system, drug prices are essentially fixed by the government.

Partnerships with other Asian countries is also called for in the areas of clinical trials and vaccine production.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen last Tuesday said both Medigen and United Biomedical are on track to close out their Phase 2 clinical trials and are expected to start supplying the first batch of vaccines before the end of July.

However, companies say that what matters is financial support to help them complete their Phase 3 clinical trials which require up to hundreds of millions of dollars. As many drugmakers do not have such funding, they are seeking financial help from global partners. For instance, South Korea's Genexine is planning to cooperate with a global partner who can jointly pay for the Phase 3 clinical trial which is expected to cost 150 billion won ($133 million).

Experts said that governments should be generous in supporting drugmakers, given that vaccines are the main way out of this pandemic.

"We agree that the government sets up 50 trillion won per year for the defense budget. It's the same with the fight against infectious diseases," said Ahn Kwang-seog, a professor of biological sciences at Seoul National University. "People should accept that it's essential cost for human security. Unlike rare diseases, we can cope with infectious diseases as much as we invested in."

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