It was 7:30 a.m. on Christmas Eve when Cha Jung-hoon, South Korea’s deputy small business minister, called his boss to urgently travel by car for three hours to visit syringe maker Poonglim Pharmatech.
In short: work out how the government can persuade and help Poonglim, which had only about 80 employees, quickly increase production of its small dead space syringes (LDS), a type of syringe designed to reduce the amount of drug in it after injection.
“It could help us get more vaccines,” Cha recalls, then-Minister Park Young-sun told him.
Under the impact of local media due to insufficient performance on securing vaccines against COVID-19, the South Korean government has been reconsidering the possibilities of speeding up deliveries and getting a bigger offer. He concluded that the engineering leap in the output of the LDS syringe was an opportunity to take advantage.
Niche products have suddenly become globally sought after, after it became apparent that a sixth dose of Pfizer Inc (PFE.N) and BioNTech (22UAy.DE) vials of the newly approved COVID-19 vaccine could be squeezed out of them compared to five doses with a standard syringe.
“We made sure Pfizer was looking for LDS syringes … using LDS syringes automatically increases the amount of vaccine by 20%,” Park told Reuters.
Of the South Korean LDS syringe manufacturers, Poonglim has been singled out for special attention.
According to South Korean healthcare workers, his products are the simplest of the domestic models, comfortably taking six doses from a bottle of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, and often seven experienced hands. Poonglim also had his patents.
Thus was born the strategy to call out Poonglim’s syringes, boost production and thus help Pfizer increase the supply of what only a few weeks ago became the first COVID-19 shot to be approved in Britain and the United States.
LDS syringes can also mean higher earnings for drug manufacturers as most contracts are based on the regulatory approved number of doses to be extracted from each vial.
In the coming weeks, government officials introduced the expertise of the country’s largest conglomerate, Samsung, to help rebuild production lines, facilitate talks with Pfizer and guide Poonglim through regulatory procedures, Poonglim Vice President Cho Mi-heui told Reuters in an interview. The Ministry of Small Business also helped arrange loans for Poonglim.
This was not the first time that South Korea had moved decisively in its fight against the coronavirus. At the start of the pandemic, the country won praise for aggressively monitoring and seeking contacts.
The government also believed in its strategy of recruiting big business to achieve quick results for small businesses, using similar tactics to boost production of face masks and test kits.
LDS syringes have helped Pfizer obtain regulatory approval in some countries to re-label its vials as six doses.
That new label, along with expanding and improving production and adding more suppliers and contractors, allowed Pfizer in January to increase its projection of the vaccine doses it can provide globally in 2021, from 1.3 to 2 billion. More recently, it has increased that forecast to nearly 2.5 billion.
Pfizer said in a statement to Reuters that it managed to accelerate deliveries in the first quarter to South Korea and more than 30 other countries because of these improvements.
Seoul announced in late February that shipments of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine – of which 26 million doses were ordered directly from Pfizer – would begin arriving in March, six months earlier than originally scheduled.
Cha, deputy minister for small business, said Poonglim sent the samples to Pfizer on Jan. 2, and the U.S. company returned a week later with positive feedback. All in all, less than two months have passed since the day the U.S. Food and Drug Administration told him to travel to Poonglim to clean Poonglim’s syringes.
Pfizer said it has no commercial agreement with Poonglim and declined to comment on any interactions with the syringe manufacturer.
In South Korea, President Moon Jae-in said the government’s rapid action on LDS syringes was the main success story in the pandemic.
Poonglim’s annual production capacity jumped more than seven times in less than four months to 360 million, and the company became, according to the Ministry of Small Enterprises, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of LDS syringes.
The South Korean firm also now has informal relationships with Pfizer in which the U.S. drugmaker is introducing potential customers, allowing Poonglim to contact and arrange with them, according to Cho.
Poonglim signed a contract this month to provide Japan with 30 million syringes over the next six months, she added. Japanese government agencies monitoring the response to COVID-19 declined to comment on their procurement policies.
Cho also said Poonglim is talking to clients in Europe and the United States about delivering LDS syringes, but declined to elaborate further.
Poonglim’s product is also among the LDS syringes included in the healthcare information package prepared by BioNTech. Other products on the list include LDS syringes from major manufacturers, such as Becton Dickinson (BDX.N) and B. Brown.
BioNTech said that its list of LDS syringes was compiled for informational purposes and that neither he nor Pfizer guaranteed their quality or provided a guarantee.
Although South Korea’s vaccination efforts are slower than campaigns in Britain or the United States over access to vaccines, its relative number of LDS syringes has helped 1.77 million people, or 3.4% of the population, receive at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine.
By comparison, Japan managed to vaccinate 1.39 million, or 1.1% of the population, despite having started the vaccination campaign nine days earlier.
Seoul also recommended this month that LDS syringes be used for all COVID-19 vaccines, not just Pfizer injection.
Poonglim was initially reluctant to cooperate with the government and Samsung when they offered to help, worried that the technology giant could steal the proprietary technology, according to Poonglim’s Cho.
But the conglomerate did a miracle, she said.
Samsung Bioepis, Samsung’s drug research organization, introduced Pfizer and helped Poonglim move through the process to gain FDA approval for the United States.
Samsung Electronics (005930.KS) helped Poonglim refine the design of the syringe, which not only facilitated mass production, but also reduced the amount of lost vaccine and made it safer to use. It also helped redesign Poonglim’s assembly lines, increasing automation to raise output capacity, she added.
Samsung Bioepis referred Reuters questions to Samsung Electronics, which declined to comment.
Production capacity has risen – from about 4 million LDS syringes in December to 10 million by February, and then recently with the construction of a new factory to 30 million a month.
The number of employees also increased to about 400 people.
Our standards: Thomson Reuters’ principles of trust.