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Korea’s success with COVID-19 inoculations could depend on EU regulator ruling, experts say

‘AstraZeneca suspensions in Europe already hurt Korean public trust in vaccine’

Vials with a sticker reading,
Vials with a sticker reading, "COVID-19 / Coronavirus vaccine / Injection only" and a medical syringe are seen in front of a displayed AstraZeneca logo in this illustration taken October 31, 2020. (Yonhap-Reuters)

Experts in Korea said the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine’s reputation here was already being damaged from the suspensions in Europe ahead of the hotly anticipated verdict on the jab from the European Union’s top regulator. 

The European Medicines Agency is due to release the findings from its investigations into whether there is a link between the vaccine and the number of blood clot cases among people who had received it.

Korean health authorities said earlier this week if the EU watchdog finds that the blood clot incidents in people inoculated with the AstraZeneca vaccine aren’t a coincidence, they may halt its use here at least temporarily.

As Korea awaits the announcement from the regulators, health authorities continued to assure the public the vaccine is to be trusted.

Kwon Jun-wook, Korea National Institute of Health Director, told a news briefing Thursday afternoon that he expects the EMA to “give a verdict based on science and reason,” adding that the AstraZeneca suspensions were “choices of individual nations irrespective of a scientific connection.”

Another senior health official overseeing said in the same briefing that as Korea’s supplies of the AstraZeneca vaccine are locally produced, potential problems with particular batches in Europe should not be an issue here. 

“The vaccines aren’t thought to have played a role in the reports of blood clots, but they are being suspended as a precaution. We are due to find out from the EMA announcement shortly,” she said.

Dr. Paik Soon-young, a virology professor at the Catholic University of Korea, said, “The suspensions in some European states are already hurting public confidence in the shot.”

If the EMA -- albeit highly unlikely -- were to issue any sort of warning for the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine, continuing its inoculations in Korea would be “difficult” as trust would be shaken, he said.

Paik added he was “almost confident” that the EMA would give the green light to the vaccine, and that once the jab is cleared, inoculations would pick up.

International Vaccine Institute Director General Dr. Jerome Kim said the reported blood clotting events in people who had the AstraZeneca vaccine weren’t statistically higher than the typical figure.

“Given the populations being vaccinated I think it is expected that you will see blood clots,” he said. “I guess we will need to wait till more data are available, though the UK and the EMA really have continued to say that the vaccine is safe.”

Still, Korea needs its own probe on local reports regardless of the EMA opinion, according to infectious disease professor Dr. Kim Woo-joo of Korea University.

As the vaccination programs in Korea has only begun less than a month ago, health authorities said this week they were “just beginning to assess the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness.”

“The EMA recommendations can serve as a reference, but Korea’s own drug regulation agency should look into cases emerging in Korea independently, and figure out whether it is actually a side effect to the vaccine,” Kim said.

As of Wednesday midnight, more than 598,000 people in Korea have received their first AstraZeneca shot, with at least two reporting blood clots. One of them was a chronically ill patient in her early 60s, and the other one a paramedic in his 20s.

By Kim Arin (