TOKYO >> While foreign pharmaceutical companies have drawn attention for their development of COVID-19 vaccines, a diverse list of Japanese companies are providing vital raw materials for vaccine production.
Yamasa Corp., a shoyu company founded in 1645, for instance, supplies pseudouridine, important for the production of messenger RNA (mRNA). Messenger RNA is an important genetic material used in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
Pseudouridine was key to the rapid development of coronavirus vaccines. Messenger RNA had been considered difficult to use in vaccines because its introduction to the body caused inflammation, a reaction of the immune system.
But Hungarian researcher Katalin Kariko and a colleague discovered that by subbing in pseudouridine for uridine, a component of mRNA, the mRNA was easily retained in the body.
Yamasa entered the pharmaceutical field in the 1970s by drawing on its research for making umami ingredients. It has been exporting pseudouridine overseas since the 1980s.
Until recently Yamasa’s shipments were small and used mainly for research purposes, but the pandemic changed that. The company’s sales of pseudouridine have grown “tens of times” since the pandemic.
Yamasa’s sales for the fiscal year ending December 2020 hit $508.2 million, with its pharmaceutical-related business accounting for about 10% of that. But the company has plans. “We want to grow pharmaceutical products into a pillar of our earnings on par with our mainstay, soy sauce,” said Toshitada Noguchi, Yamasa’s managing director.
Meanwhile, major glass manufacturer AGC Inc. is contracted to produce plasmid DNA, a raw material for Pfizer’s vaccine, at its plant in Germany. Plasmid DNA acts as a mold for transcribing genetic information into mRNA. The company plans to expand its production line to meet increased demand.
Other companies are involved in vaccine production. Fujifilm Corp. is contracted to manufacture vaccines being developed by Tokyo-based biotech startup VLP Therapeutics Japan LLC, and equipment owned by chemical manufacturer Daicel Corp. will be used to produce DNA vaccines being developed jointly by medical startup AnGes Inc. and Osaka University.