SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean authorities are facing a backlash for relying on global vaccine-sharing scheme COVAX for a bulk of its COVID-19 shots as shipment delays threaten to slow the country’s inoculation programme.
Once praised by the World Health Organization for its decision to procure vaccines through the global scheme, South Korea is now facing criticism at home as the government scrambles to meet the supply shortfall.
South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam are among countries to be hit by shipment delays to vaccines they have been promised following export curbs by manufacturer India.
In February, South Korea slashed its first quarter vaccination target from 1.3 million people to just 750,000 due to adjustments in the supply timetable of the 2.6 million doses of AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine from COVAX.
The latest COVAX shipment disruption announced earlier this week – that it would only receive 432,000 doses instead of 690,000 and delivery would be delayed to around the third week of April – is the second time that South Korea’s vaccine rollout has been hit by delayed supply from the scheme.
“The government should no longer cause public anxiety with the vaccines,” Lee Yong-ho, an independent lawmaker who sits on parliament’s health and welfare committee, said.
“It should either impose export curbs on the locally produced vaccines until the supply uncertainties are resolved, or come up with a special vaccine procurement strategy and bring the originally contracted quantity as planned.”
South Korean health authorities said they were not considering restricting exports of locally produced vaccines, but instead, holding talks with vaccine makers and distributors to advance delivery timelines.
The efforts appear to be bearing fruit with the government announcing on Thursday that delivery of the 432,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccines from COVAX would be brought forward to Saturday from the third week of April.
“(We) have accelerated administrative process and were able to bring forward the schedule from what COVAX had initially informed us,” the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said.
The fluctuating shipment schedules have raised concerns about the country’s aim to immunise 12 million people by June, reaching herd immunity by November, but government officials have assured the goal is achievable.
“This is a very achievable target as we have factored supply schedule and our inoculation capability into the calculation,” Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun told a news conference on Thursday.
Assuming no further delays, South Korea is scheduled to receive 13.7 million doses in the second quarter — 6 million from Pfizer Inc, 7 million from AstraZeneca and 729,000 from COVAX.
Oh Se-hoon, opposition candidate for Seoul’s mayoral by-election, attacked the government this week for its slow vaccine rollout, which he said was the world’s 105th to kick off.
The slow rollout was partly due to the country’s early strategy to focus more on containing the virus through aggressive testing and contact tracing than striking bilateral vaccine deals.
While most wealthy nations had shunned joint purchases through COVAX, raising concerns over vaccine inequity, South Korea committed to procure vaccines from the scheme which earned praise from the WHO.
“The Republic of Korea despite being a high-income country that could easily afford to buy vaccines through bilateral deals has waited its turn for vaccines through COVAX,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on March 22.
Mike Ryan, WHO’s top emergency expert, also lauded South Korea’s overall efforts to contain the COVID-19 disease.
He said the country not only developed a very successful surveillance and testing regime but exported those tests around the world, kept the disease under control in a very significant way, and have numbers of disease that are “the envy of the world.”
South Korea reported 551 new cases on Wednesday, bringing the country’s total infections to 103,639, with 1,735 deaths.
Despite international plaudits, some like lawmaker Lee said the slow rollout raises doubts about the government’s plan to reach herd immunity this year.
“With just 1.5% of the total 52 million population vaccinated, it is questionable with current supply when we will ever reach the herd immunity.”