Ensuring vaccine suppliesThe Covid-19 vaccine breakthrough made during the summit between President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Joe Biden leaves much to be desired. Although it is meaningful that Samsung Biologics will be contract-manufacturing the vaccines for Moderna, Korea has no say in the output or domestic supplies. It is tantalizing news for Korean people who had wished to hear when their share of vaccines will arrive, not diplomatic hype.
In late April, Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong floated the idea about a vaccine swap where Korea would get excess vaccines from the U.S. first and then return the same amount later when its supplies become sufficient. Chung emphasized that Korea was the first to deliver diagnostic kits and masks when the U.S. struggled with a sudden spike in Covid-19 cases, saying a friend in need is a friend indeed.
There had been high expectations that President Moon would bring home large supplies of vaccines. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga separately met with Pfizer CEO and secured 100 million doses during his state visit to the U.S. last month.
By leveraging on the Korean companies’ near $40 billion investment package, Korea could have secured extra vaccines from U.S. makers Pfizer and Moderna. But the immediate supplies of 550,000 from the United States are reserved for servicemen.
Samsung, Hyundai Motor, SK and LG have pledged a $39.4 billion investment in the U.S. But vaccine rewards have been far from satisfying, although the two issues may not be comparable.
Biden said the U.S. will provide 550,000 vaccines for Korean servicemen who work closely with U.S. troops in Korea, suggesting normalizing the Korea-U.S. joint military drills that have been scaled back since the breakout of the pandemic.
The United States plans to offer its vaccine reserves to developing and poor countries who cannot afford to secure vaccines on their own. Some in the Biden administration have questioned why Korea needs vaccine aid when it is a major economy. Korea’s vaccine diplomacy may have missed from the beginning.
Korea’s vaccine program is moving at a snail’s pace due to the delayed arrivals of procurements. At the current pace, the vaccine program timetable for the third quarter may not go as planned. The Moon administration must address public jitters about vaccine shortages if it wants to achieve herd immunity by November. The government must use the contract manufacturing status to supply vaccines at home as planned.