South Korea's waiting game with the COVID-19 vaccine

South Korea, praised for containing COVID is taking time with vaccination.

January 8, 2021, 12:41 PM

SEOUL -- South Korea has widely been praised for its relatively successful response to the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to its rigorous contact tracing, mass testing capacity, and high degree of compliance in wearing masks. The nation of 51.80 million has had 67,358 cases and 1,081 deaths as of Jan. 8. Despite experiencing three waves of spikes so far, its daily cases peaked at 1,241.

Medical staff dressed in protective suits work at a temporary COVID-19 testing site in Gangnam Station, Seoul, Dec. 26, 2020.
Simon Shin/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images, FILE

For vaccines, it's another story. South Korea is late to the vaccine race while other countries have stepped up vaccination efforts.

The nation secured vaccine doses for approximately 56 million people via pre-purchase deals as of last Christmas Eve -- enough doses for 10 million people each from AstraZeneca and Pfizer, 20 million from Moderna, 6 million from Janssen and another potential 10 million from the COVAX facility -- a global initiative to expand COVID vaccine access.

However, a couple weeks before then, the United Kingdom and the United States had already started vaccinations.

Commissioner Jeong Eun-kyeong of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) announced this week that vaccinations will start late February. "We are aiming to achieve herd immunity by this November by vaccinating more than 60-70% of the population. Most other nations are also expecting herd immunity around the third and fourth quarter of this year," she said Friday in response to questions at the National Assembly.

While the currently secured doses are more than enough to cover the entire South Korean population, experts are expressing concerns over the lack of a detailed plan. The vaccination plan announced by the KDCA last month does not mention specifics about when or how the vaccines will enter South Korea, be transported from the airport and distributed to hospitals.

"In order to form a herd immunity, most of the population needs to be vaccinated within a short period of time. That's why we need the exact schedule for how many doses will enter South Korea at what point in time, so we can plan swift mass vaccinations," Korea Vaccine Society's vice president, Ma Sang-hyuk told ABC News.

People undergo COVID-19 tests at a coronavirus testing site which is temporarily set up in front of a railway station in Seoul, Dec. 21, 2020.
Kim Hong-ji/Reuters, FILE

"Developing a cold chain to transport Pfizer vaccines, which requires an ultra-low storage temperature, will be a challenge," said Kang Jin-han, chairman of the Catholic University of Korea's Vaccine-Bio Research Institute.

What made South Korea take its time when it comes to vaccines? South Korean health authorities have maintained they can afford to wait, citing relatively fewer cases and deaths."Since South Korea has a remarkably lower number of cases than the U.S. or Europe, the government felt little need to hurry. They reasonably focused more on safety than speed" Dr. Kang said.

Health ministry spokesperson Son Young-rae said last month that "health authorities are concerned the social atmosphere has become a race to get the vaccine first," while Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said "South Korea has its own strategy that suits South Korea" during Friday's National Assembly meeting.

Dr. Ma pointed out that the South Korean government's budget proposal for 2021 initially included no budget for any kind of vaccine purchase. "They weren't interested in securing foreign-made vaccines, because they didn't expect a vaccine to be completed before the end of 2020. So instead they focused on developing treatment medicine or domestic vaccines if anything," Dr. Ma told ABC News.

South Koreans have mixed opinions on the government's leisurely approach. Juyeon Kim, a 23-year-old illustrator, said she doesn't mind the wait. "If it's for safety, I think we should evaluate the vaccine very carefully even if it takes longer," she said. Kevin Ahn, 56, said he would've preferred a swifter response, "considering the pressure on the country's health care system and workers."

Residents stand in a queue at a temporary COVID-19 testing site in Gangnam Station, Seoul, Dec. 26, 2020.
Simon Shin/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images, FILE

On the other hand, experts question if the prudential policy actually enhanced safety. "If health officials waited to monitor safety, why did they switch to purchasing vaccines in less than a month? That's not enough time to make a difference," Dr. Ma asked.

The government says it will announce specifics at the end of January, just a month before its target date of late February when vaccinations are set to start.

As of now, the South Korean Ministry of Food and Drug Safety is reviewing the vaccines -- a process that takes up to 40 days. "We can't definitely say vaccinations will start late February until the review process and final authorization is over," Dr. Kang told ABC News. Three South Korean-made vaccines are also undergoing clinical trials, despite concerns that those efforts are now obsolete.

Whether vaccinations start or not, Dr. Ma warns that this is not the end of COVID-19 by any means. "Becoming COVID-free is virtually impossible. We will have to learn to live with the virus, regardless of vaccines. Otherwise people will either die from COVID or die from the economic impact of stringent social distancing."

ABC News' Hakyung Kate Lee and Aaron Kwon contributed to this report.

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