How to deceive the public

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How to deceive the public

 Koh Hyun-kohn
The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Half of the Korean population, or 25.11 million adults aged between 20 and 60, are forced to take the second Pfizer and Moderna vaccines six weeks after the first shot. In early August, Jeong Eun-kyeong, head of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA), announced that the interval between the first and second shot of Pfizer and Moderna would temporarily be extended from the usual three to four weeks to six weeks due to uncertainty in vaccine supply. The announcement was closer to a unilateral notification than an effort to seek understanding from the public. It remains uncertain when the “temporary” arrangement will go back to the recommended dosing routine. The only option left is to use some of the leftovers to shorten the interval.

Health authorities arbitrarily stretched the dosing interval. While first extending the interval from three to four weeks, they explained the step was aimed at bringing Pfizer’s three week gap in line with Moderna’s four week gap so as not to confuse vaccine-takers. Though it had to stretch the interval due to a shortage of vaccines, the government acted as if it was doing the people a favor. People are not that dumb. Simple honesty would have been better. As the interval is prescribed by vaccine producers for optimal effect, it should be followed. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) applied the same guideline to the two vaccines. It advises taking the second shot as “close to the recommended three-to-four-week interval,” except for in unavoidable situations.

In Korea, most in the age group from 20 to 60 get their second shots after a six-week interval. Jeong, the KDCA chief, came up with the explanation that the Pfizer vaccine’s effectiveness had been studied with a six-week interval during clinical testing and that she could not find documents confirming a difference in effectiveness. In other words, there is no clear scientific backing for Seoul’s arbitrary interval. During parliamentary questioning, Koo Yun-cheol, minister of the Office of Government Policy Coordination, joined the chorus. He claimed that the government had expert opinions that confirmed that the vaccine effect wouldn’t be affected by lengthening the interval, without specifying the sources.

The interval was pushed to the limits because of the government’s ambition to vaccinate 70 percent of the population before the long Chuseok holiday. Koo said that the government’s vaccine goal was to have as many people receive the first shot as possible since there is some effect from the first dose. But the first dose is not that meaningful. The protection of a jab of Pfizer vaccine against the Delta variant remains at a paltry 31 percent. The rate goes up to 88 percent with the second shot. Choi Jae-wook, a medical professor at Korea University, argued it is more important to fully vaccinate people as early as possible than have them just take the first shot quickly.

But the government is jubilant, saying that Korea has outpaced the United States and Japan in first-shot vaccination rate to hide the fact that Korea remains at the bottom in full vaccination rate among members of the OECD. In a marathon race, how many people pass the finish line is important, not the number of runners who reach the halfway point. Due to the extended interval, Korea’s rate of first shot vaccination (65 percent) nearly doubles that of fully vaccinated people (39 percent.) In other countries, the difference is not that great. According to Our World in Data, the rate of partly vaccinated people is 62 percent, while the rate of fully vaccinated people is 53 percent in the U.S. The difference is even smaller, at 5 percentage point for Germany and just 1 percentage point for Singapore. Japan is slower than Korea in the partly vaccinated rate, at 62 percent, but the ratio of fully vaccinated people is much higher, at 50 percent.

The government has been deceiving the public to cover up its vaccine procurement folly. It no longer chants that Korea would be the first Covid-free country through the Celltrion cure like last year, as people have learned a treatment is not an answer to combat the virus. In May, President Moon Jae-in touted Korea as a future vaccine-making hub after Samsung Biologics was commissioned to manufacture Moderna vaccines. But that also was incorrect as the vaccines rolling out of the Samsung factory go elsewhere, as Korea’s share would have to be separately negotiated with Moderna. Yet Moderna has not given its answer.

The government has been tantalizing the public with various explanations and wishful thinking. Moon explained that the government cannot control supply because it is decided by a few global producers. The government is investing 2.2 trillion won ($1.88 billion) over the next five years to develop vaccines to achieve self-sufficiency. But for now, it must work harder so that people do not have to wait six weeks to get their second shot. The people are too tired of the endless cycle of excuses from our health authorities.
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