S. Korea launches consortium to develop next-generation mRNA vaccine platform

Lim Chang-won Reporter() | Posted : June 29, 2021, 16:04 | Updated : June 29, 2021, 16:04

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SEOUL -- South Korea launched a special government-sponsored consortium to develop a next-generation messenger RNA vaccine platform amid growing public disappointment over the delayed launch of homemade COVID-19 vaccines. The consortium aims to develop a new vaccine capable of preventing infections by coronavirus variants.

The K-mRNA consortium, launched in a ceremony hosted by the Ministry of Health Welfare on June 29, involves three drug makers -- Hanmi Pharmaceutical, GC Pharma and ST Pharm, which will work with a biopharmaceutical business association to establish a vaccine production and export base by securing technology for an mRNA vaccine platform.

Hanmi CEO Kwon Se-chang said the consortium aims to develop mRNA COVID vaccines "with preventive effects that are more than equal" to those commercialized by Moderna and Pfizer."We will develop the next-generation vaccine that can overcome mutant viruses not too late," Kwon said in a statement published by the health ministry.

The K-mRNA consortium would try to secure mRNA technology by next year to produce 100 million doses that can inoculate the entire population twice per person, the ministry said, adding a mass production system would be established by the second half of 2023 to distribute more than one billion doses annually at home and abroad.

By 2025, the consortium would use its mRNA platform to develop anti-cancer vaccines and next-generation innovative drugs. "The mRNA COVID-19 vaccine has already been developed, but the consortium puts emphasis on securing the mRNA platform, not just its vaccine development," said GC Pharma CEO Heo Eun-chul.

Hanmi, GC and ST Pharm would invest more than 700 billion won ($620 million) in clinical trials, core raw materials and mass production facilities. They would expand the scope of cooperation with other domestic companies affiliated with the Korea Innovative Medicines Consortium (KIMCo) and research institutes.

KIMCo was formed in 2020 by the Korea Pharmaceutical and Bio-Pharma Manufacturers Association (KPBMA), a biopharmaceutical business group led by Chairman Won Hee-mok. "I believe the government will fully support domestic companies as they joined forces to protect vaccine sovereignty and survive the global vaccine war," Won said.

The novel coronavirus is studded with proteins that it uses to enter human cells. Spike proteins make a tempting target for potential vaccines and treatments. DNA vaccines transfect a specific antigen-coding DNA sequence onto the cells of an immunized species, while mRNA vaccines teach cells how to make a protein that triggers an immune response for the production of antibodies.

DNA vaccines are safer than mRNA vaccines but there is a disadvantage that raw material inputs are higher. The advantages of RNA vaccines include production speed and lower cost, but they may elicit an unintended immune reaction, and mRNA vaccines can be easily broken by small shocks, making them difficult to transport and store.

South Korea has approved clinical trials for three DNA vaccines, three recombinant vaccines and one viral vector vaccine. Five companies including SK Bioscience aims to carry out final-stage clinical trials, starting in the second half of 2021.
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