[Video] The long hard road to herd immunity

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[Video] The long hard road to herd immunity

Life may never be the same after the coronavirus pandemic, but there is one thing that can get us close: it’s not masks, it's not treatments, it's not social distancing, it's vaccines.
Humanity has lived with the worst respiratory pandemic in modern history for almost exactly one year now. After months watching the disease spread globally, we’re just starting to see a light at the end of tunnel as some countries begin vaccinations.  
Britain was the first to kick off inoculations on Dec. 8. Over the past few weeks, the list has extended to the United States, Canada, Europe, Switzerland, Israel, Mexico and more. 
But while those stories make good headlines, the big question most people want answered is "when will that vaccine reach me?"


When will vaccines be available in Korea?
According to government announcements, vaccination in Korea is slated to start in the first quarter of this year: in late February at the earliest.  
However, that doesn’t mean that any Korean will be able to walk into a hospital and get vaccinated.  
The launch in the first quarter will only be the starting point of a long vaccine program; which in its early days will focus on people at risk like old-aged citizens or medical staff.  
As of Jan. 5, the Korean government announced it secured vaccines for more than 56 million people. Korea has a population of nearly 52 million, so that’s enough to inoculate the entire country.  
Korea has signed supply deals with AstraZeneca, Janssen, Pfizer, Moderna and the Covax Facility, which is a global Covid-19 vaccine distribution program backed by the World Health Organization.
Because the Covax Facility’s role is purchasing vaccines from multiple companies and redistributing them, we don’t know which brands Korea will receive through the organization.
Janssen and Moderna will start domestic distribution in the second quarter while Pfizer’s vaccines are slated to arrive in the third quarter.  
The Korean government’s goal is to realize herd immunity by September 2021 - which refers to the stage where a large portion of the community becomes immune to a disease. 
But the arrival of vaccines is only the start in a long hard road to herd immunity.
When that first batch of Covid-19 vaccines rolls out in Korea, what happens next?
There is a long checklist of important and difficult decisions to be made. The biggest question is: who gets it first?  
The Korean government has made it clear that the first supply of coronavirus vaccines will be provided to elderly people and medical staff.  
But it’s likely that vaccine imports will continue to come in limited batches throughout the year as countries compete for supplies. This means second tier, third tier and other groups to follow will also need to have boundaries set to decide who is eligible.
Logistics is another major issue. Vaccines are biological products so they need to be stored and transported in specific conditions to remain effective. AstraZeneca and Janssen’s for example, can be stored at temperatures of 2 to 8 degress Celsius. Moderna and Pfizer, on the other hand, are mRNA vaccines that require storage in extremely cold temperatures. 
One local study found that Korea is wildly unprepared for national vaccine distribution.  
In 2018 and 2019, only 38.5 percent of public health centers and 23.4 percent of private medical institutions had vaccine-appropriate refrigerators of 2 to 8 degrees Celsius. Barely any had facilities suitable for mRNA vaccines.
As the pandemic spreads globally, new variants of the coronavirus have been reported worldwide. Will vaccines put a stop to that as well?
It’s very natural for viruses to mutate and evolve.  
Leading vaccine developers have expressed confidence that their products will work against the variants found so far. None of the mutations identified were so different that they are likely to negate the efficacy of developing vaccines.
This could change, however, depending on how drastically the coronavirus evolves in the future. If a mutation emerges so strong that it can’t be controlled by existing vaccines, that would essentially restart the entire development process.  

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BY Song Kyoung-son  VIDEO BY Jeon Tae-gyu  [jeon.taegyu@joongang.co.kr]
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