South Korea - Global health R&D

This section focuses on donor countries’ support to global health research and development (R&D) that addresses the global health challenges disproportionately affecting the world’s most disadvantaged people. Following the methodological approach used by Policy Cures Research (read G-Finder’s scope document), it focuses on donor funding and policy in three main areas: 1) emerging infectious diseases (EIDs), 2) poverty-related and neglected diseases (PRNDs), and 3) sexual and reproductive health (SRH). As part of the EID R&D funding, this section also takes a closer look at donor contributions for COVID-19 R&D within the framework of the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A). This section excludes domestic funding for health R&D that does not benefit low- and middle-income countries. Not all funding mentioned qualifies as official development assistance [ODA].)

Global health R&D is not a strategic priority within South Korea’s development policy 

According to data from the G-FINDER survey conducted by Policy Cures Research, South Korea contributed US$8 million in total to R&D for EIDS, PRNDs, and SRH in 2020, making it the 22nd-largest public donor to R&D for these areas. The vast majority (74%, or US$6 million) of this funding was spent on R&D for EIDs only. 25% (US$2 million) was spent on R&D for PRNDs only. The remainder, less than 1% (US$20 thousand), was spent on R&D initiatives targeting more than one disease area. 

The government tends to use non-ODA resources to invest in R&D by domestic companies. For example, during the COVID-19 crisis, the government has largely invested domestically in COVID-19-related R&D, but has committed to sharing the results globally. 

South Korea contributes to Unitaid, a global health R&D initiative focused on tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, malaria, and hepatitis C. It pledged US$5 million a year to Unitaid for the 2019-2021 period, which represented a 25% increase in annual contributions compared to its 2013-2018 contributions. In December 2020, South Korea decided to contribute US$1 million to Unitaid to expand the distribution of COVID-19 diagnostic kits in low- and middle-income countries. South Korea helped to establish a ‘Research Investment for Global Health Technology’ Fund, known as the RIGHT Fund in 2018, which aims to leverage South Korea’s global health R&D expertise and its ODA to develop technologies to address health needs in low- and middle-income countries. The government committed to providing KRW25 billion to RIGHT Fund (US$21 million) in total between 2018 and 2022.

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South Korea spent US$6 million on R&D for EIDs in 2020

In 2020, South Korea spent US$6 million on R&D for EIDs, up from US$480 thousand in 2019. This makes South Korea the 22nd-largest donor to R&D for EIDs in 2020. 

South Korea’s funding for EIDs increased by 329% in 2020 compared to 2019 (US$480 thousand). Most of this funding was mobilized in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting R&D initiatives. It is worth noting that it is common to see spikes and dips in EID funding as donors respond to outbreaks, and do not necessarily indicate a significant re/de-prioritization of the sector; however, consistent funding for EID R&D (for example, funding for the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations; CEPI) is essential to ensuring preparedness in advance of EID outbreaks and ensuring a rapid response—in terms of both research and containment—to emerging disease threats. South Korea made its first annual commitment of US$3 million, from 2020 to 2022, to CEPI.

About half (51%) of South Korea’s EID R&D funding in 2020 went to R&D for more than one disease, and the remaining half went to coronaviral diseases (including MERS, SARS, and COVID-19; 48% of EID funding). The remaining 2% of funding went to Bunyaviral diseases (including CCHF, RVF, SFTS). South Korea’s funding for EID R&D is surprisingly low given that global health is a strategic focus of the country’s development efforts. 

South Korea has increased R&D funding to EID through its international COVID-19 response, committing US$200 million during the G7 Summit in 2021 

South Korea committed an equivalent of US$200 million to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance (Gavi) COVAX Advance Market Commitment (AMC) for 2021 and 2022 during the G7 Summit in June 2021. South Korea has joined ACT-A as a ‘Facilitation Council’ member and is one of eight countries—with the US, China, India, Russia, Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa, and Mexico—in the 'market leader group'. The ‘Facilitation Council’ provides strategic advice and guidance to ACT-A. ACT-A is a framework for collaboration through which donor countries have committed funds toward R&D for COVID-19; however not all ACT-A funding is for R&D, since it also has a strong health system strengthening and vaccine distribution components. (For additional information on the broader ACT-A global health response to COVID-19, see Sector: ‘Global Health’.)

South Korea spent most neglected disease funding on TB

In 2020, South Korea invested US$2 million in R&D for PRNDs, making it the 21st-largest public supporter of PRND R&D in 2020. 78% of South Korea’s funding for PRNDs in 2020 was directed toward tuberculosis (TB); the rest of spending on R&D for PRNDs was directed toward diarrheal diseases (US$300 thousand) and hepatitis C (US$100 thousand). 

South Korea’s funding for SRH R&D is very low

In 2020, South Korea spent no funding on R&D for SRH that did not target other diseases. It spent US$20 thousand on R&D that targeted SRH in some form, making it the 27th-largest donor to the area in 2020. 2019 was the first year in which funding for SRH was reported, according to the G-FINDER survey conducted by Policy Cures Research. 

South Korea’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention leads on ODA-related global health R&D

South Korea’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) takes the leading role in disease control in South Korea. Within the CDC, the ‘Risk Assessment and International Cooperation Division’ under the ‘Emergency Operations Bureau’ manages operations in partner countries.