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[Newsmaker] Jailed Samsung chief’s effort to secure 20m more Pfizer vaccinations in spotlight

Lee Jae-yong walks into the Seoul High Court on Jan. 18. (Yonhap)
Lee Jae-yong walks into the Seoul High Court on Jan. 18. (Yonhap)
After South Korea closed a deal with Pfizer to obtain additional doses of its COVID-19 vaccine, Samsung Electronics’ de facto chief, Lee Jae-yong, is receiving much attention in local media for his reported role in facilitating talks between the two sides.

Seoul announced Friday that it had secured enough additional vaccine for 20 million people in a deal that soothed public worries over a shortage. Adding to those worries were the reported side effects associated with the AstraZeneca jabs -- the mainstay of the country’s inoculation campaign.

According to the DongA Ilbo and multiple other media outlets, the vice chairman of Samsung, in prison since January for bribing former President Park Geun-hye, acted as a bridge between the Korean government and Pfizer.

While the Moon Jae-in government had no channels with the top leadership of the US vaccine developer until early December, Lee used his personal network and sought the help of Shantanu Narayen, chairman of the US computer software company Adobe, who was an independent director of Pfizer.

Lee and Narayen first met at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in 2011. The Adobe chairman visited Seoul to meet Lee later the same year, and the two have maintained ties ever since.

In December, Lee personally phoned Narayen, according to local media.

The Samsung chief was introduced to the head of Pfizer’s vaccine business by the Adobe chairman, providing the Korean government with a way to launch negotiations with the US company.

Lee reportedly used Korea’s low dead space syringes, which increase the number of shots that a vial of Pfizer vaccine can provide, as the ace in the hole.

Earlier, Samsung supported Poonglim Pharmatech, a local LDS syringe maker, in its mold development and the establishment of a smart factory, to assist the country’s response to the pandemic.

The Samsung leader’s call successfully brought Pfizer to the table with Korean government officials on Dec. 22, including Jeong Eun-kyeong, commissioner of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, who is currently in charge of COVID-19 vaccinations here, the reports said.

Samsung’s efforts to support the government in securing vaccines were disclosed right after Lee was put behind bars Jan. 18, when the Seoul High Court handed down a 2 1/2-year sentence in a retrial of the bribery case involving former President Park.

According to the DongA Ilbo, had he not been convicted, Lee would have visited the United Arab Emirates to secure more vaccines. The report didn’t say how he could have done so, or whom he was going to meet there.

Samsung officially declined to comment on the matter.

Various sectors of Korean society are calling on the government to grant a special pardon for Lee.

The country’s major business lobby groups plan to submit a letter to the government this week recommending the pardon.

The five major lobby groups -- the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Korea Enterprises Federation, the Korea Federation of SMEs, the Korea International Trade Association and the Federation of Middle Market Enterprises of Korea -- have agreed to present a letter to the government within the month recommending a pardon for Lee, industry sources said.

“With our economy going through tough times and the competition for the global semiconductor market heating up, the pardon of Vice Chairman Lee is increasingly necessary,” a draft version of the letter said.

The Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism has sent a petition to President Moon Jae-in, National Assembly Speaker Park Byeong-seug and former Prime Minister Chung Se-kyun asking for leniency for Lee.

Rep. Yang Hyang-ja, a former executive at Samsung and current lawmaker with the Democratic Party of Korea, has also expressed concerns about Samsung without its leader in the ongoing chip war.

Postings on the Cheong Wa Dae homepage continue to appear, asking the president to release the Samsung chief.

“The government needs to consider the role and weight of Samsung in the country’s economy,” one post said. “The country should give Lee one more chance to exercise his ownership to overcome the COVID-19 crisis and lead the economy.”

By Song Su-hyun (