(ATTN: CLARIFIES with details in paras 2-4)
By Kang Yoon-seung
SEOUL, May 23 (Yonhap) -- South Korea, touted as one of most successful countries in containing the new coronavirus pandemic without lockdowns, is gearing up for its next step to emerge as a global vaccine hub, with four COVID-19 vaccines already being or set to be produced here.
The country's vision to become a global vaccine hub got a boost as Samsung BioLogics Co. signed a deal to bottle Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine at its local factory, in line with President Moon Jae-in's four-day visit to Washington.
Under the deal, the pharmaceutical arm of Samsung Group will ship the Moderna vaccine from the third quarter at the earliest.
Samsung will be tasked with providing fill-and-finish, labeling and packaging services to Moderna.
Moderna will become the fourth COVID-19 vaccine to be produced in South Korea, following AstraZeneca, Novavax and Sputnik V vaccines.
AstraZeneca and Novavax vaccines are currently manufactured here by pharmaceutical firm SK Bioscience Co., while other smaller players are producing the Russian vaccine, although not all of the vaccines produced here are supplied locally.
The country's drug safety agency has already approved the use of AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Moderna vaccines.
South Korea hopes that the deeper ties with global vaccine producers will not only speed up the local inoculation program, but also help the world overcome so-called vaccine nationalism and ease supply shortages.
Since its first confirmed virus case in late January 2020, the country has so far reported 135,929 COVID-19 cases, which hovers far below other major economies that have reported millions of infections. Despite the notable achievement, only around 3.4 percent of South Korea's 52 million population has been fully vaccinated.
South Korea aims to achieve herd immunity by November as planned.
"We expect the agreement to speed up the global supply of vaccines and help in eradicating the COVID-19 pandemic for the normalization of everyday lives of the world," Vice Health Minister Kang Do-tae said.
"Through the cooperation between South Korea and the United States, we can significantly increase the production and supply of COVID-19 vaccines, which will eventually ease the supply shortages around the globe," Kang added.
South Korea said it will negotiate with Moderna to have some parts of the volume produced by Samsung be supplied locally as well.
So far, the country has secured enough shots to fully vaccinate 99 million people, more than enough to vaccinate all of its population, including doses from the COVAX Facility project.
Of the volume, Pfizer's vaccine accounts for 33 million, followed by Moderna with 20 million.
Authorities said the volume signed with Moderna earlier will still be imported to South Korea as planned regardless of Samsung's deal.
Moderna, meanwhile, also signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with South Korea's Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy and the Ministry of Health and Welfare.
Under the MOU, Moderna agreed to make investments in a mRNA vaccine production facility and hiring of manpower in South Korea. The ministries plan to offer support for Moderna's investment and business activities.
SK Bioscience inked a separate agreement with Novavax to carry out joint research projects to develop vaccines that are more effective against variant strains.
The two companies will also study deeper to develop vaccines that combine COVID-19 and flu shots.
South Korea plans to speed up cooperation with Washington to strengthen joint response capabilities against infectious diseases as well.
"We agree to establish a comprehensive global vaccine partnership to strengthen joint response capabilities for infectious disease through international vaccine cooperation, including focus areas on global expansion of production and related materials, as well as scientific and technological cooperation," the two countries said in a joint statement released after the summit.
Seoul and Washington will launch the KORUS Global Vaccine Partnership Experts Group to further carry out the vision.
"South Korea is approaching closer to becoming the global hub for the production of vaccines, based on the steady investment rolled out by businesses," Industry Minister Moon Sung-wook said. "We hope that our closer ties with Moderna and Novavax will lead to new innovations."
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