South Korea looks to tackle global COVID-19 vaccine inequality

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SEOUL, Aug. 1 (UPI) — While more than 12 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines have gone into arms around the world and two-thirds of the global population has received at least one shot, the inequity between richer and poorer countries remains wide.

Just 20% of people in low-income countries have received even a single dose — an imbalance that is not only a “catastrophic moral failure,” as World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned last year, but one that is prolonging the pandemic and increasing the risk of new and possibly more dangerous variants.

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South Korea, a rising power on the world health stage, is trying to bridge the inequality gap with a special focus: teaching people from less-developed countries to make vaccines on their own as the WHO’s global biomanufacturing training hub.

“We felt the need to tackle this imbalance and chose fostering the workforce as a means to address the problem,” South Korean Deputy Health Minister Lee Kang-ho, who is leading the vaccine hub program, told UPI.

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“The issue of vaccine inequity goes beyond just a matter of fairness,” he said. “It ultimately serves as a barrier to end the pandemic.”

The project’s first pilot training course kicked off in early June with 30 international students from 12 low- and middle-income Asian countries, including Bangladesh, Cambodia, the Philippines, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

The students, who come from a mix of government, manufacturing and academic backgrounds, are learning classroom and hands-on skills in an eight-week program that covers everything from making vaccines to packaging, storing and shipping them.

All major vaccine platforms are included in the training, including Messenger RNA, or mRNA, the cutting-edge technology behind the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines.

Many of the trainees said the COVID-19 pandemic underscored the need for self-sufficiency as their countries struggled desperately to access vaccines.

“Although we had money, we suffered a lot due to non-availability of COVID vaccines for our people,” Muhammed Shahabuddin, a production manager at a state-owned pharmaceutical company in Bangladesh, said.

His government is working to set up a biomanufacturing company and research institute but Shahabuddin said there is an enormous need for practical training of the sort he is receiving in South Korea.

“We still don’t have enough people with the required biotechnology education, skills and experience,” he said.

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Muzaffar Muminov, a microbiology researcher from Uzbekistan, said his government also realized that producing vaccines locally would be crucial in dealing with future pandemics but soon ran into barriers when trying to set up its own manufacturing project.

“Since most of us were involved in biotechnology at the research level and lacked in-depth manufacturing experience, designing bioprocesses was quite challenging,” he said.

The pilot course is being held in the classrooms and labs of the Korea National Institute for Bioprocessing Research and Training center at Yonsei University’s international campus in Incheon, the port city and international airport site west of Seoul. Funding for the program is coming largely from the Asian Development Bank.

The trainees have also been able to visit local biopharmaceutical companies, including vaccine developer EuBiologics, as well as multinationals such Janssen and Merck.

South Korea is looking to biotech as one of its key future growth industries and has emerged as a major COVID-19 vaccine contract producer during the pandemic, with giants such as Samsung Biologic producing Moderna vaccines and SK Bioscience making AstraZeneca and Novavax jabs.

At the end of June, health authorities gave final approval for use of the country’s first homegrown COVID-19 vaccine, SK Bioscence’s SKYCovione.

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Jeong Jin-hyun, director the K-NIBRT education center at Yonsei, said South Korea is the ideal country to bridge the gap between the world’s vaccine haves and have-nots.

“We were very poor but became a developed country quite fast,” Jeong said. “So I think Korea has a really big advantage because we understand what some of these other countries are dealing with. We can be in the middle between developing and developed countries.”

The K-NIBRT program will train a total of 120 students in pilot programs this year and next before expanding its operations further in 2024, Jeong said.

Another training course under the WHO partnership was launched in July, a two-week introductory vaccine manufacturing program for 106 participants from 24 countries conducted by the Seoul-based International Vaccine Institute. In October, a second IVI-led course will host 200 international trainees, Lee said.

South Korea ultimately plans to “provide end-to-end training that covers the entire cycle of vaccines and biologics manufacturing process,” Lee said. “It can be put onto the shop floor immediately when [trainees] go back to their home countries.”

The ongoing spread of COVID-19 through the highly contagious BA.5 variant alongside the scarcity of vaccines for monkeypox, designated a global health emergency by the WHO last week, only highlights the need for greater equality.

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“It is critical that key biologics manufacturing capacity, such as that of vaccines, should not be a privilege of richer countries,” Lee said. “For that, a skilled bio-workforce is a must.”