Global demand for South Korea's medical products exploded in the month of May, amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Exports of bio-health products including COVID-19 test kits surged 59 per cent on year, and PPE saw a whopping 124-thousand percent increase.
Some say this marks the start of K-Bio beyond COVID-19, with many now watching for developments toward a Korean-made vaccine and treatment.
Today, we have our tech correspondent Oh Soo-young to discuss the issue with us.
Sooyoung, the government finally gave us the answer that we were waiting to hear. An idea of when a vaccine will be out to end this pandemic. How does the timeline look and can we be optimistic?
Right, the government's task force on COVID-19 drugs told us Wednesday that three types of treatments for the coronavirus would be out by this year and a vaccine by 2021.
The government is planning to inject eighty-two million U.S. dollars of its supplementary budget into achieving its targets.
And it seems we do have reason to be optimistic.
The International Vaccine Institute's research center based here in Seoul said on Thursday that it will begin the first and second clinical trials of a vaccine candidate by the end of this month.
The institute has been working with Seoul National University Hospital, and their clincial trial's will mark the country's first for the COVID-19. But, there's more to come
Right now, there are about 20 Korean bio firms working on treatments and vaccines. The largest companies include SK Bioscience and Genexine which are expected to enter clinical trials by next year.
As for developing treatments, Celltrion said last week that its animal testing has seen progress in effectively reducing viral loads of the disease, and it plans to start in-human clinical trials from late July. GC Pharma’s plasma treatment is also set to start clinical tests next month.
So from the way things are going at the moment, it looks like the development of these drugs is likely to be on schedule.
I mean, SK last month got 3.6 million dollars in R&D funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, so it seems a Korean-made vaccine is worth betting on.
Yes, you're right And there certainly is worldwide attention on Korea's bio technology if the country's test kits are anything to go by.
Korean firms have exported about 56 million test kits to 110 countries as of late May.
South Korea was able to ramp up its capacity to manufacture test kits very quickly due to the rapid government response and the agility of local firms.
In January, there were only four confirmed cases in the country but health officials quickly activated an emergency use approval system that was first adopted in 2015 during the MERS outbreak.
This allowed medical companies to develop the test kits and get approval by the first week of February and the rest is history.
So we can expect this kind of fast, and effective development for a vaccine as well?
I would say so. The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety has streamlined the time-consuming review and approval process. Normally, this takes about 30 days. BUT the period will be accelerated to below 7 days for existing substances being repurposed, and below 15 days for new substances to treat or cure COVID-19.
This kind of fast regulatory response has been met with optimism.
"I think what South Korea has demonstrated is that it's managed to implement policies quickly in a way to us that makes sense. I think that's a positive sign that Korea is in a good position to develop biomedical technology broadly and also in pharmaceuticals like vaccines."
Given the growing appeal of Korea's bio sector or as some say, K-Bio President Moon Jae-in designated it as one of Korea's three new growth engines. What's the plan?
The government's goal is to triple the country's share of new medicine and health devices
in the global market by 2030 to 6 percent, amounting to about 50 billion dollars in exports.
This would hopefully create more than one.one million jobs.
Right now, Korea is doing fairly well. In terms of biopharmaceuticals, its production capacity is second to the U.S. Also, Korea is producing the third highest number of patents related to bio-pharmaceuticals in the world and patents are usually a good indicator of innovation.
But there is some catching up to do as the level of Korea's bio-health technology is estimated to be 78 percent of America's.
"There are huge commercial opportunities as the world moves towards digitalized and personalized health care. Korea can leverage medical data, artificial intelligence and its cutting edge digital infrastructure to move ahead especially with smart health care devices. However, start-ups and researchers will need consistent and sufficient support to overcome the long and expensive development process."
Well, this has been a great discussion. It looks like a promising field, although there are of course challenges that lie ahead. Thanks for coming in today Sooyoung.