Our vaccine options
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
“My colleagues and I, including the older ones, will be getting ourselves vaccinated early. This is to show you, especially seniors like me, that we believe the vaccines are safe,” Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, 68, said in a national broadcast on Dec. 14 to announce a free Covid-19 vaccine program, the first among Asian countries. Upon approving Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccines to early recipients, Singapore lowered social distancing measures as positive reports stopped from October in the city-state, where infection cases once had exceeded 1,400.
Singapore eagerly went after vaccines. Lee detailed the procurement efforts that had not been easy despite an early start. Yet the government lobbied drug makers amid uncertainties on how many of over 200 candidates for vaccines would turn out successful, he explained.
In a cabinet meeting in Seoul on the previous day, President Moon Jae-in remained out of touch with reality. He repeated how the country had been successful in mitigating the spread of the coronavirus and asked the cabinet to “act decisively if social restriction rules would have to be elevated to a near-lockdown Level 3.” He has not mentioned a word on vaccines despite escalating public disquiet over the dropping of the ball on vaccine procurement in Korea.
The government has failed to secure vaccines due to a lack of leadership. Bureaucrats still remember how the chief of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency was lambasted at a parliamentary hearing for wasting tax money worth 70 billion won ($63.2 million) when imported influenza vaccine shots turned out be past their expiration dates in 2010. They would’ve hurried if they had strong command from the president.
But what is done is done. Although the government has failed in early procurement of vaccines, it is no use nagging them to get Pfizer or Moderna vaccines that are out of stock. The drug makers can turn out 1.3 billion to 500 million doses at best next year. Total orders or options for extra procurements are already set for 1.3 billion in Pfizer’s vaccine and 620 million for Moderna’s. Since Korea has not managed to sign a contract with either of them, it cannot get those two vaccines, whose efficacy has been proven at 95 percent.
Korea’s slow interest in vaccinations cannot be helped now. Who is at fault can be investigated thoroughly later as in the case of the Sewol ferry disaster, which was investigated nine times. What is more urgent is to secure some vaccines. There can be two options. One is that we can make our own by ignoring patent protections for Covid-19 vaccines. Vaccines using mRNA, or messenger ribonucleic acid, require a highly sophisticated process. Experts believe Korea’s pharmaceutical companies could turn them out if Pfizer or Moderna can share some of the core processing technologies. Another option is securing leftovers from other countries. The United States has secured 1.1 billion doses from the two drug makers when including the option for additional supplies. Even when 320 million Americans get two jabs, about 400 million could be left over. Both options are not impossible if Korea exercises its fullest diplomatic efforts.
If neither option works, Korea will have to decide whether to vaccinate people with the Oxford-AstraZeneca candidate, which has an efficacy rate of 70 percent. If safety is assured, the AstraZeneca vaccine won’t be a problem since flu shots in general have an efficacy rate of less than 60 percent.
But whether the people would be able to receive the shot remains questionable. America would be in no hurry to scrutinize the AstraZeneca product when it already has enough vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. Korea may have to take a shot that lacks validation from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Even when vaccines arrive, they will be of no use if people refuse to get the shots. The principle behind vaccine programs is that “no one is safe until everyone is safe.” A vaccine program won’t gain confidence unless it has the backing from someone reliable like Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has strong confidence from Americans.