South Korea was one of the few countries to have effectively grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic. But now South Koreans are criticizing the government’s failure to secure enough vaccines.
Amid growing public distrust in the vaccine rollout, the government announced in an emergency briefing on April 24 that it has decided to purchase enough additional coronavirus vaccines to inoculate 20 million people from Pfizer, the U.S. pharmaceutical company.
Kwon Deok-cheol, South Korea’s minister of health and welfare, announced in a briefing that the government will introduce vaccines for 50 million people from Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Novavax, and Janssen, by September to promote the achievement of “herd immunization” by November. That includes the additional contract with Pfizer. South Korea has a total population of around 51 million, including children under 16, who have not yet been cleared to receive any of the vaccines.
The government signed a first contract with Pfizer for doses to inoculate 10 million people in December 2020, and secured additional vaccines for 3 million people in February this year. With the additional contract, South Korea is now securing Pfizer vaccines for a total of 33 million people.
Kwon explained that the price of the vaccines in the additional contract was the same as the previous contracts and added that the Pfizer vaccines have been regularly supplied every week since the first shipment on March 24. While Pfizer has also signed contracts with other countries, Kwon mentioned that the company promised to supply all of the vaccine doses under its contracts with South Korea within this year.
The government said that the new Pfizer vaccines are expected to arrive starting in July, adding that other newly purchased vaccines will also be supplied from same month.
Putting together all its contracts with various manufacturers, South Korea’s government has purchased enough vaccines for 99 million – nearly twice the nation’s total population, and about 2.75 times the inoculation target for herd immunity. However, some people are still questioning the target date for herd immunity, arguing the government’s slow vaccine rollout in the first half of 2021 will make it impossible to accomplish.
Critics say the government’s plan to inoculate 20 percent of South Korea’s total 51 million population by June faces uncertainties in securing vaccines on site and on time. And the number of daily confirmed cases, which has been repeatedly going up and down in recent weeks, is one of the reasons of causing public distrust and anxiety.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in on April 26 asked politicians not to politicize the government and quarantine officials’ efforts to secure vaccines after some lawmakers from the main opposition part cited dubiously sourced arguments that herd immunity might not be reached for over six years. Along with Moon’s remarks, Hong Nam-ki, acting prime minister, said in a briefing on the same day that the government will have the capability to inoculate 1.5 million people a day by May.
The government plans to introduce other vaccines from Novavax, Moderna, and Janssen within the first half of the year to speed up the vaccination process. However, even if the plan takes place, Koreans who are young and not working in public sectors are unlikely get vaccinated in the first half of the year.
Based on that, critics argue that the government has fallen behind in securing and purchasing vaccines.
Roh Kyung-ho, a professor of laboratory medicine at the National Health Insurance Service Ilsan Hospital, told The Diplomat that the government might not have felt as much urgency as the United States and the United Kingdom, two stand-outs in vaccination speed. After all, South Korea’s daily confirmed cases and fatality rates were far lower than much of the world’s.
“The rate of confirmed cases in South Korea is still about 0.002 percent, while other countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom are recording above 10 percent. I think it is the main reason the government was not urgent and desperate about securing vaccines last year,” Roh said.
Critics have also expressed concern that the government is too optimistic about supply conditions in the third quarter. The government has vowed that the Pfizer vaccine and others will be supplied as planned, but as many others – such as the United States, the European Union, and Australia – signed large-scale vaccine contracts with Pfizer earlier than South Korea, it is still unclear whether the doses will be properly supplied in July.
“There is uncertainty… We probably cannot get the vaccine on time from pharmaceutical companies because the United States and the United Kingdom have shown their intention to block the companies for exporting the vaccines to other countries,” Roh said. The professor added that it is a critical moment for the South Korean government to effectively keep negotiating and communicating with the companies to secure the vaccines.
If things do not go as planned, it would be challenging for the government to reach its goal of herd immunity by November.
While the criticism and frustration have been mounting toward the government, some have suggested releasing Samsung’s heir, Lee Jae-yong, from prison to take advantage of his relationship with pharmaceutical company chairmen to get enough vaccine ahead of schedule. In a recent poll, 70 percent of the respondents supported his release from prison. However, Moon is unlikely to pardon him. Lee is scheduled to be released from prison in July of next year and is likely to spend even longer in prison depending on the outcome of other trials.
In addition, 49 percent of respondents said that the government is not handling the virus well, according to a recent poll. It was the first time negative feedback from the public outweighed positive reviews for the Moon government since the coronavirus outbreak began last year. Experts say that the slow vaccine rollout and the rising number of new confirmed cases are the main reasons for the public’s criticism toward the government.
“I believe many Koreans praise the government’s efforts and prompt response to keep safe us from the pandemic but I have no idea why we are way behind on the number of vaccine rollouts,” Bae Yong-kuk, 45, a small business owner in Seoul, told The Diplomat. “People want to get vaccinated soon but it seems majority of people need to wait for the inoculation until September or October. So, I sincerely want the government to know that I and other small business owners are [trapped] in a corner by shutdowns and we cannot survive till fall if we have to keep living like this.”