Back To Top

Who will get COVID-19 vaccine first? The debate begins

A vial of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine at Queens Police Academy in the Queens borough of New York, US, January 11, 2021. (Yonhap-Reuters)
A vial of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine at Queens Police Academy in the Queens borough of New York, US, January 11, 2021. (Yonhap-Reuters)

As South Korea gears up for COVID-19 vaccinations, with the first batch of vaccines to be shipped here next month, the government is weighing whom to push to the front of the line.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency on Tuesday outlined the groups that would be granted priority: seniors aged 65 and above, those aged 19 or above who have health conditions, health care workers, child care workers, emergency dispatchers, police, firefighters and service members.

The agency said the inoculations would serve three aims: sustaining the health care system and other essential functions of society, reducing rates of mortality and morbidity, and curtailing community spread of the virus.

Dr. Jung Jae-hun, a public health policy expert and preventive medicine specialist at Gachon University of Medicine and Science, said the stated order of priority might be subject to change depending on how many doses arrive and when.

“It is still unknown exactly when Korea will have how many of which vaccines. If we have access to only a smaller amount in the spring, it might be wiser to vaccinate medical workers ahead of the at-risk populations, as they are fewer in number,” he said.

Rollout by age would be the standard approach, according to preventive medicine professor Dr. Choi Jae-wook of Korea University.

“If our primary target is to lower deaths, it makes sense to vaccinate older people first. But if it is to slow the spread, then it would be better to vaccinate younger people first,” he said.

“To boost compliance with and build confidence in the procedure, transparent communication in deciding the vaccination order is imperative,” he added.

President Moon Jae-in said in his New Year’s address Monday that all 52 million Koreans will get their vaccines for free.

Korea will have access to a total of 56 million doses of vaccines from AstraZeneca, Janssen, Moderna and Pfizer, based on government announcements so far. But this could increase through additional deals, according to Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun on Tuesday.

The KDCA said it plans to complete vaccination of priority groups by November. As most of the vaccines require two doses, those who are further down on the priority list, adults aged between 19 and 49, will be able to get their first shots sometime in the fall. The vaccines will not be made compulsory.

Korea on Tuesday announced 508 locally transmitted and 29 imported cases of COVID-19, according to the KDCA updates, down from the recent peak of over 1,000 cases daily. The cumulative number of official cases stands at 69,651.

In the aftermath of outbreaks at nursing homes and nursing hospitals across the country, the death toll is increasing fast. Twenty-five more people died on Monday, bringing the death toll to 1,165. Over one-fifth of all COVID-19 deaths here so far have occurred this month.

By Kim Arin (