SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea will almost certainly miss its goal of vaccinating 80% of its population to reach coronavirus “herd immunity” by November, the head of a doctors’ association whose advice helped the country contain the pandemic’s first wave said on Wednesday.
The vaccination programme is due to start next week, after a procurement process that has drawn complaints at home for being slower than many abroad.
Choi Dae-zip, president of the 140,000-member Korean Medical Association (KMA), echoed that criticism.
“Securing enough doses in time was the government’s duty and it needed to go extraordinary lengths to make the effort,” he told Reuters in an interview. “Instead it ended up a complete flop.”
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency was not immediately available for comment on Choi’s remarks.
A colourful figure who has periodically criticised the country’s coronavirus response strategy, Choi last year led lobbying by the KMA that persuaded the government to restrict arrivals from virus hotspots in China, and designate specific hospitals for COVID-19 patients.
The government now aims to immunize close to 44 million people – four in five of the population – by October to reach herd immunity four weeks later when vaccine antibodies will have been formed.
It scaled back initial targets for the first quarter due to delayed shipments from global vaccine-sharing scheme COVAX, and said will not use the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University on people aged 65 and older, reversing an earlier decision.
Despite the slow start, health authorities say their November goal remains on track.
Choi – a leading voice calling for the government not to provide AstraZeneca’s vaccine to elderly people until more data proved its efficacy – said reaching the November target will be very hard.
“This is practically an impossible goal,” Choi said. “Bottom line is that it is difficult to physically administer vaccines for 43.55 million people by then.”
The government’s plans calls for each physician to diagnose and vaccinate 150 patients a day. Choi said that was impossible for doctors who were already thinly stretched.
Choi, who has shaved his head and occasionally dressed up in costumes during protests against government policies affecting doctors, said it will take providers more time to ensure that patients don’t have adverse reactions to what are brand-new vaccines.
“There is (also) … a higher chance the doctors won’t know the patients they meet at the vaccination centre, which means they need much more care,” Choi said.
He said the government was right to be ambitious, but that a starting number of 60 to 80 people per doctor per day was a more realistic, and safer, expectation.
“The goal should be extended from November to the first half of next year, but we still need to do our best,” he said.
(Reporting by Sangmi Cha; Writing by Josh Smith; ; editing by John Stonestreet)