AstraZeneca, Novavax partner SK Bioscience eyes $132M vaccine production boost—and looks to add mRNA to the menu

COVID-19 production pacts have elevated the profile of numerous biopharmas during the pandemic, and that's certainly true for AstraZeneca and Novavax's partner SK Bioscience. The company is now channeling its recent momentum into a sizable manufacturing expansion at home.

Flush with $1.33 billion from an initial public offering on the Korea Exchange, SK Bioscience has drawn plans to invest 150 billion won ($132 million) into vaccine production over the next three years, Reuters reported Monday. 

The company aims to stand up additional production capacity by 2024 and kit out its existing vaccine factory in Andong, South Korea, to produce newer mRNA and viral vector shots, Reuters said, citing a statement from SK. 

SK has inked a deal with the government of North Gyeongsang Province and the city of Andong to buy new land and expand its plant there. When the project is complete, the site will feature 99,130 square meters, or a little over 1 million square feet, of additional production space.

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Andong, situated 118 miles southeast of Korea's capital, Seoul, already plays host to the company's "L House" vaccine plant, which it operates alongside an R&D center and headquarters. As of late February, the plant boasted nine vaccine production lines, CEO Ahn Jae-yong said at a news conference that month. 

The plant is currently producing both the AstraZeneca and Novavax's COVID-19 vaccines. It recently scored the European Union's manufacturing green light, teeing up SK to export pandemic shots to the bloc, Reuters reports.

SK first telegraphed its ambitions to expand production back in February. At the time, the company was angling for a roughly $900 million offering, with $450 million set aside for vaccine production in Korea and abroad.

While the company helps AstraZeneca and Novavax with pandemic vaccine production, SK is also working on its own potential launches. Under the Novavax deal, SK clinched the rights to produce, market and distribute the Maryland-based biotech's vaccine in Korea.

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From its own pipeline, SK is advancing its recombinant protein vaccine GBP510 with GlaxoSmithKline's AS03 adjuvant. That GSK-boosted formulation entered a phase 1/2 study in February and the company also plans to test the vaccine as a solo agent. SK's other candidate NBP2001 has now entered phase 1 testing.

Last month, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) committed $173.4 million to help fund the development of GBP510. The cash boost followed support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2020, bringing the total investment to $210.1 million. SK aims to bring the shot to market within the first half of 2022.