Health minister to visit U.S. for vaccine supply talks

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Health minister to visit U.S. for vaccine supply talks

Health and Welfare Minister Kwon Deok-cheol speaks at the government's daily Covid-19 response meeting on Thursday. [YONHAP]

Health and Welfare Minister Kwon Deok-cheol speaks at the government's daily Covid-19 response meeting on Thursday. [YONHAP]

 
Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol will visit the United States this week to discuss cooperative measures to supply Covid-19 vaccines to Korea, the ministry said Thursday.
 
“Minister Kwon will leave for the United States on Friday,” Sohn Young-rae, spokesman of the Ministry of Health and Welfare, said during a daily briefing on the country’s response to the pandemic. “He will have meetings with U.S. government officials and company representatives to discuss Covid-19 vaccine issues.”
 
Sohn, however, did not elaborate on whom Kwon will meet or what kinds of cooperative measures will be discussed.
 
Kwon’s trip was announced shortly after President Moon Jae-in’s arrival in Washington to have a face-to-face summit with U.S. President Joe Biden. The presidential summit is scheduled for Friday at the White House, and bilateral cooperation on the vaccine supply is one of the key agendas of the meeting.
 
Earlier this week, Moon said his trip to the United States will be used to make Korea a global hub of vaccine production. “I will use the upcoming trip to the United States as an opportunity to strengthen cooperation in the field of [Covid-19] vaccines and make Korea a global hub of vaccine production,” he had declared during his meeting with senior presidential secretaries on Monday.
 
Speculation is high that Seoul and Washington may strike a deal that Korea will loan vaccines from the United States. Last month, Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong admitted that a vaccine loan arrangement was being discussed with the United States. The idea is that Korea would receive emergency aid in the form of vaccines from the United States and then pay it back later with vaccines produced on consignment in Korea.
 
Other speculation also grew that a U.S. pharmaceutical company will start production of Covid-19 vaccines in Korea. On May 10, Jeong Eun-yeong, a senior Health Ministry official, said that discussions are underway between a U.S. company and a Korean pharmaceutical firm to produce mRNA vaccines in Korea.
 
Moderna and Pfizer are producers of mRNA vaccines, and speculation is high that Moderna will manufacture its products in Korea, possibly in cooperation with Samsung Biologics.
 
SK Bioscience produces AstraZeneca vaccines in Korea, although these are viral vector vaccines, not mRNA. The company will also begin manufacturing Novavax viral vector Covid-19 vaccines as early as June.
 
Meanwhile, Kwon urged the elderly population on Thursday to get their vaccine shots, expressing concerns that recently less people have been signing up to get inoculated.
 
“As of today, 50.1 percent of people aged 60 to 74 signed up for vaccines,” Kwon said during the government's daily Covid-19 response meeting. “The total reservation ratio [for the group] was 42.9 percent on Monday, 47.2 percent on Tuesday and 49.5 percent on Wednesday. The rate it is increasing is slowing down.”
 
According to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, a total of 3,760,940 people, or 7.3 percent of Korea’s population, have received their first shots as of Wednesday midnight, while 1,273,210 people, or 2.5 percent of the population, received both doses.
 
Korea reported 646 new Covid-19 cases, including 619 local infections, on Thursday, raising the total caseload to 134,117. There were four additional deaths from the virus, raising the total to 1,916.
 
BY SER MYO-JA, SEO JI-EUN   [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]
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