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COVID-19 vaccines

War for bio talent intensifies as S.Korea works on mRNA vaccines

Limited talent pool prompts Korean bio firms to race for recruitment of mRNA vaccine experts

By Aug 05, 2021 (Gmt+09:00)

Demand for mRNA vaccines is rising amid a resurgence of the pandemic
Demand for mRNA vaccines is rising amid a resurgence of the pandemic

As concerns rise over a resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic, the war for talent in South Korea’s pharmaceutical industry is intensifying as the country is looking to develop its own messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) vaccines by next year.

Eyegene Inc., a domestic biotechnology company, recently requested the nation’s top spy agency to look into a case that allegedly involved its employees with corporate secrets moving to a competitor.

An Eyegene official said there are attempts by its rival companies to poach its talent, particularly those working on the development of mRNA vaccines.

According to the domestic pharma industry on Thursday, drug makers and biotech companies are engaged in a heated race to recruit researchers and mRNA-related employees who work at competing companies.

“The war for talent is going to intensify and it will get tougher,” said an official at a local biopharmaceutical firm.

The “job poaching” is happening as the government said in late June the country will develop its own mRNA vaccines by next year with plans to annually manufacture 100 million doses from 2023.

A consortium led by Hanmi Pharmaceutical Co., ST Pharm Co. and Green Cross Corporation will invest 700 billion won ($618 million) on clinical trials, development of raw materials and expansion of mRNA vaccine manufacturing facilities.

COVID-19 vaccine
COVID-19 vaccine

LIMITED TALENT POOL

Industry watchers say Korea is a latecomer in the development of mRNA vaccines and about 10 biopharma firms are working on such vaccines, which are in growing demand globally.

“Currently, there are about 100 mRNA-related researchers and employees. Most of them must have been approached by competing companies with decent job offers,” said a bio sector recruiter. “A researcher with a three-year work experience at a bio venture firm recently moved to a larger company after accepting a 50% salary hike of his current job.”

The mRNA vaccine, employed by Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc., is a type that uses a copy of a natural chemical called messenger RNA to produce an immune response.

Messenger RNA has been used to treat hepatosis and rare diseases, but given its relatively short period of time for development, the RNA molecule is now used not just for vaccines but for the treatment of cancer and other illnesses.

Some other Korean companies working on mRNA vaccines include Samsung Biologics Co., Celltrion Inc., Gene One Life Science Inc. and Quratis Co.

Quratis is conducting a phase I clinical test of its mRNA COVID-19 vaccine, while Eyegene is expected to receive government approval for its phase I clinical tests.

Samsung Biologics, which is manufacturing Moderna’s COVID vaccines, has said it is expanding its facilities to produce the drug substance in mRNA vaccines by the first half of 2022.

Moderna is one of the global biopharma firms that use mRNA-based vaccines
Moderna is one of the global biopharma firms that use mRNA-based vaccines

PARTNERSHIPS AND ACQUISITIONS

Biopharmaceutical companies are also active in forging partnerships with and pursuing acquisitions of smaller competitors specialized in mRNA vaccine development.

Celltrion said on Wednesday it has tied up with TriLink BioTechnologies Inc., a US life science company, to develop a next-generation mRNA vaccine platform that can also be applied to coronavirus variants.

France's pharmaceutical giant Sanofi S.A., which has lagged behind rivals in developing new generation mRNA Covid-19 vaccines, said it is purchasing a US firm specializing in the technology.

Sanofi said in a statement on Tuesday that it is buying Translate Bio, an mRNA therapeutics firm, for $3.2 billion.

Sanofi was left trailing in the race to break out a COVID-19 vaccine as rivals Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna used pioneering mRNA technology to develop mRNA-based vaccines in record time.

Write to Woo-sub Kim at duter@hankyung.com

In-Soo Nam edited this article.
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