SEOUL - South Korea and the United States signed deals on vaccine partnership when President Moon Jae-in met his US counterpart Joe Biden in Washington last week, paving the way for Seoul's ambition to become a global vaccine hub.
Experts noted however that South Korea still faces the fundamental problem of shrinking vaccine stocks in the country due to a global shortage.
South Korea wants to achieve herd immunity by November and, on paper, has secured enough doses for almost double its 52 million population.
But as of Tuesday (May 25), only 3.8 per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated, and 7.7 percent had received the first dose. Vaccinations began on Feb 26.
Persuading the US to release some of its vaccine surplus to South Korea, in return for something Seoul could offer, would have helped speed up vaccinations, but such an agreement was sorely missing from the Biden-Moon summit, analysts noted.
Dr Bong Young-shik of Yonsei University pointed out that Mr Biden only promised to provide enough vaccine doses for the 550,000 South Korean troops working alongside the US army, not for the entire population.
"Japan managed to get Pfizer to commit to providing enough vaccines for all citizens aged 16 and above to be fully vaccinated by September. That's a huge gain," Dr Bong told The Straits Times, referring to a deal made when Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga visited Washington and met Mr Biden in April.
"But Moon only got vaccines for South Korean troops."
Questions are also being raised about how far South Korea can advance as a vaccine hub if Samsung Biologics, one of the world's largest contract-based drug manufacturers and a subsidiary of the Samsung Group conglomerate, only inked a "fill and finish" production deal with US biotechnology firm Moderna.
This means Moderna's mRNA vaccine will not be produced in South Korea, but rather, will be shipped from the US for packaging and distribution there.
As Samsung Biologics and Moderna said in a joint press release, the Korean company's base in Incheon's Songdo district will provide "aseptic fill-finish, labelling, and packaging services to support the production of hundreds of millions of doses of Moderna's Covid-19 vaccine intended for supply outside the US starting in the third quarter of 2021".
Dr Bong said this was equivalent to Samsung Biologics becoming an assembly line for Moderna.
"There will be no transfer of original technology for vaccine manufacturing and we don't get control over where vaccines go," he said.
"The Moon Jae-in government is bluffing about this being an achievement."
The JoongAng Ilbo newspaper said in an editorial on Tuesday (May 25) that the South Korean government was promoting its vaccine hub ambitions as "a plan to get the chicken instead of the eggs".
"But the only thing that's confirmed is the fact that Samsung Biologics is supposed to get completed Moderna vaccines and bottle them. Other elements to become a hub are still in the MOU (memorandum of understanding) stage. MOUs can be broken," the paper said.
The South Korean government has repeatedly emphasised that the country has the production capability to become a vaccine manufacturing hub.
SK Bioscience, the vaccine arm of the SK Group conglomerate, is already producing vaccines for British-Swedish firm AstraZeneca and will manufacture America's Novavax vaccine as early as June.
A consortium led by Hankook Korus Pharm is making Russia's Sputnik V vaccine.
Five South Korean companies are also aiming to start late-stage clinical trials of their own vaccines in the second half of this year.
Dr Jerome Kim, director general of the Seoul-based International Vaccine Institute, said that South Korea "already has a vibrant biotech sector and manufactures a good portion of the world's monoclonal antibodies".
Samsung Biologics taking over Moderna's "fill and finish" process would help overcome a "critical bottleneck" in its vaccine supply, he added.
"Manufacturing of the drug substance, as SK Bioscience is doing for AstraZeneca, and the vaccine itself, is an important next step, but its accomplishment will likely require additional discussion and negotiation, if this is anticipated," Dr Kim told ST.
More opportunities could also come for South Korea if the two other firms making mRNA vaccines - Pfizer and Curevac - decide to follow in Moderna's footsteps, he added.
Dr Kim remains hopeful that South Korea could achieve herd immunity by November, if additional vaccine stocks arrive next month.
"If supply constraints are eased and the vaccines expected by Korea arrive, then it will be possible to vaccinate 70 per cent of the population by November," he said.