Emerging vaccines, more funds in the fight against MERS

Copyright: Chris Stowers / Panos

Speed read

  • ‘Most promising’ vaccines against MERS presented at Seoul conference
  • Findings on two of the vaccines said to indicate protection in monkeys
  • Next steps for the promising vaccines could include testing on humans

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[MANILA] South Korea is ramping up its fight against infectious diseases especially on the dreaded Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) that recently hit the East Asian country hard.

Some of the most promising vaccine contenders were presented at the International MERS-CoV symposium in Seoul on 10 September.

Earlier this month, Samsung Medical Center pledged 41 billion South Korean won (US$34 million) over five years to the Seoul-based International Vaccine Institute (IVI) to develop vaccines against MERS.

While the specifics of how the money will be spent are still being negotiated, Jerome Kim, IVI director general, tells SciDev.Net that the “grant gives us an opportunity to move forward with a disease that people haven’t really paid a lot of attention to.”

Two of the vaccines have published findings highlighting their protection in monkeys. One was created by the vaccine research centre at the United States-based National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, with the findings published in Nature Communications on 28 July.

The other vaccine was developed at Inovio Pharmaceuticals, also headquartered in the US, with the findings published in Science Translational Medicine on 19 August.

“There’s a range of possibilities,” says Kim. “Every vaccine seems to work really well in mice, and as we move up from mice to rabbits to monkeys to humans, often we see some differences that can be very relevant.”

IVI will be working with Samsung to pinpoint the most promising vaccines that can soon be tested on humans.

This news comes at a time when the South Korean government is also increasing its investments in global health.

Earlier this month, President Park Geun-hye pledged to spend over US$100 million over five years (starting in 2016) to help 13 low- and middle-income countries fight infectious diseases. The countries include Cambodia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Jordan, Laos, Liberia, Mali, Peru, Sierra Leone and Uzbekistan.

Kim says that the money could go a long way in helping those countries that might not always qualify for international assistance in health, but still suffer from infectious diseases.

He points to the vaccine alliance GAVI that heavily subsidises essential vaccines to developing countries, but only if their national income levels remain below a certain threshold.

Once a country’s per capita income exceeds US$1,580, it starts to “graduate” from GAVI support and no longer benefit from reduced prices for established and new vaccines.

Kim acknowledges that the MERS outbreak probably did play a role in South Korea’s generosity, but notes that the country has been looking into new avenues of donor aid for some time now.

“Banking on its experience, capacity and relatively advanced biomedical sciences, Korea may be best positioned to provide the necessary assistance to countries in need of support,” says Sang-Dai Park, professor emeritus at Seoul National University and chief advisor to the Korea Support Committee for IVI.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.