Domestic vaccine research and development (R&D) on norovirus remains sluggish, in contrast to various clinical trials conducted by foreign pharmaceutical companies, industry watchers say.
Norovirus, also known as the “winter vomiting bug,” is highly contagious and is often spread through touching surfaces or ingesting food and water contaminated with fecal matter. The virus thrives among those living in close quarters and can survive even boiling and cold water and surfaces. There are no drugs or vaccines that can treat the stomach bug, but the illness goes away by itself in a couple of days.
Recently, the disease had both the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic Games Organizing Committee and the domestic health authorities on high alert to contain an outbreak of the virus ahead of the official kickoff of the sports event. Although the virus seems to have been contained, the illness occurs regularly in Korea, raising the importance of a vaccine or drug to treat its symptoms.
According to the latest statistics from the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety (MFDS), the average patients suffering from the foodborne illnesses caused by norovirus is approximately 40 a year, with 50 percent of the cases occurring from December to February.
There are 42 global clinical trials underway or finished for the treatment or prevention of norovirus. Six of these clinical trials also include Korea.
Takeda Pharmaceuticals is known to be leading the development of a norovirus vaccine. Takeda’s TAK-214 injectable vaccine covers two Norovirus genogroups that cause a majority of illness in humans. The company finished phase 2b clinical trial in August last year, but have not yet released the results of the test.
Other pharmaceutical companies conducting clinical trials for a norovirus drug or vaccine include LigoCyte, Vaxart and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
However, there are no researches conducted by domestic pharmaceutical companies and institutions, which has raised alarms among experts.
According to a report by the Korea Institute of S&T Evaluation and Planning, Korea concentrates proportion of studies on new and unidentified infectious diseases solely on Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) coronavirus.
As of 2016, MERS accounted for 83.8 percent of the total 8.2 billion won ($7.6 million) R&D budget for new and unexplained infectious diseases.
"With the increase in climate change and population migration, there is a growing concern of new infectious diseases and illnesses that mainly affected foreign region coming into Korea,” the institute said in a statement. “Pre-emptive investment is needed for research on new and domestic infectious diseases."