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Seoul is calling on the Biden administration to help Korean companies access intellectual property for producing Covid-19 jabs as the highly infectious Delta variant sparks a reassessment over global vaccine requirements.
South Korea’s failed attempts to gain access to US companies’ mRNA vaccine technology strikes at the heart of the rising divergence between the interests of pharmaceutical companies and the views of some international medical experts over jab supply shortages.
“We have asked Washington to transfer technology for vaccine production, but US officials said it is something that should be decided by the private sector,” said a senior official in Seoul, who asked not to be named.
The Biden administration has urged vaccine makers to share their technology and backed a proposal at the World Trade Organization to suspend international patent rights. It added that a network of low-cost factories overseas could boost global supplies by several billion doses a year. The proposals have yet to make headway at the WTO.
The pharmaceutical industry has strongly resisted attempts to waive intellectual property on Covid-19 vaccines, arguing it would not boost production given the restraints on supplies of raw materials and the time it would take to teach other companies how to manufacture the shots.
South Korea’s biotech sector, which enjoys heavy state backing, is poised to plough billions of dollars to expand factories to produce 1bn vaccines annually.
Korean companies have already signed deals to produce vaccines for AstraZeneca, Novavax and Russia’s Sputnik jabs. Samsung BioLogics, one of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical contract manufacturers, will this month start late-stage “fill and finish” vials for Moderna.
But the South Korean companies are struggling to secure IP licensing deals with big US groups Pfizer and Moderna, despite a broad vaccine partnership agreed in May by President Joe Biden and Moon Jae-in, his South Korean counterpart. Such deals would enable Korean groups to produce jabs under contract for the US companies.
“We are still in talks with the US on possible co-operation in the research and development process. But the chances of signing any licensing deals soon seem low at this stage,” the official in Seoul said.
The Moon administration has touted South Korea as a global vaccine manufacturing hub and promised Won2.2tn ($1.9bn) of state investment for vaccine development over five years.
Some of the hurdles facing South Korea include US concern that China might steal technology as well as the negative impact that such a waiver would have on vaccine developers, according to Park Jin, a lawmaker who had travelled to Washington to try to broker a deal.
“But I believe the US can waive IP protection for Covid vaccines for its allies such as South Korea and Taiwan through licensing deals,” he said.
Moderna and Pfizer declined to comment.
Vaccine makers, however, have said they are rapidly expanding production, which is more efficient when done in a handful of locations at greater scale.
Pharmaceutical groups have historically been protective of patents and critics believe the companies are wary of setting precedents that could be applied to other life-saving medicines.
The deadlock coincides with some experts pointing out that vaccine production plans are insufficient as the Delta variant surges across the globe and worries over fading efficacy stoke demand for booster jabs, straining supplies.
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“The companies already feel that they have significant global manufacturing capacity and that the major shortcoming at this point is ‘fill and finish’,” said Jerome Kim, director-general of the International Vaccine Institute in South Korea. “The feeling among other people is that there’s just not enough vaccines being made.”
The Biden administration is already funding vaccine manufacturing projects in other countries to create regional supply “hubs”, but these do not yet include South Korea.
Dave Marchick, the chief operating officer at the US Development Finance Corporation, a development bank, told the Financial Times: “South Korea is a very viable market, but it is not the only one. We would like to do more in Africa and South America.”
Additional reporting by Hannah Kuchler in London