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Korea’s Health Ministry dodges question on vaccine responsibility

Son Young-rae, spokesperson for the Ministry of Health and Welfare (Yonhap)
Son Young-rae, spokesperson for the Ministry of Health and Welfare (Yonhap)

Ministry of Health and Welfare spokesperson Son Young-rae told a briefing Tuesday that it was “not appropriate, nor helpful, to seek accountability” for the limited availability of vaccines in Korea and the consequent deaths at this point.

More than 93 percent of critical and fatal cases of COVID-19 in the last two months were among people who weren’t vaccinated, according to Son. In the briefing, he was asked if he thought things would have been different had vaccines been available to them. 

“It’s not easy to explain whether the casualties could have been prevented in a hypothetical scenario,” he said. “You have to look at different factors. Vaccination status is just one of them.”

Son went on, “COVID-19 claimed the lives of 2,104 people so far in Korea, and the ministry is deeply sorry and doing all it can to keep the cases as low as possible.”

By comparison, countries like the US had a lot more deaths, he said.

“The US counted 300 times more deaths than Korea did, for instance. But you wouldn’t say the US administration or ones in charge there are that much more blameworthy than we are,” he said. The case fatality rate in the US is roughly 1.75 percent, higher than Korea’s 1.04 percent.

He added that overall, fewer patients had gotten severely sick or died compared to previous waves, as older and more vulnerable people are already vaccinated.

“What I can say is that past few months have taught us vaccines are highly effective against COVID-19,” he said.

Son once again insisted that the national vaccine campaign is rolling out “on schedule,” despite the government having postponed the inoculation timeline for 60-somethings in June, and then again for 50-somethings in August.

The vaccine eligibility in Korea opened up to 55- to 59-year-olds last week. The turn for people younger than 50 does not come until Aug. 26.

Infectious disease professor Dr. Kim Woo-joo of Korea University said the ministry was “rather tone deaf” to have drawn comparisons with the US, instead of taking accountability, when people here were suffering from a lack of vaccines amid a fourth wave of infections.

Two patients in their 20s died from COVID-19 in the past week alone. Also last week, a patient in his 40s died while being transported from hospital to hospital around Seoul because there wasn’t an available bed for him.

“It is true the vast majority of deaths and hospitalizations in Korea now are among the unvaccinated, as is also the case in the US,” Kim said. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said last month that the current phase of the pandemic was “becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

But that is where the similarity ends, Kim said.

“Unlike in the US, most people in Korea are not yet eligible for vaccination,” he said. “People who are unvaccinated remain so because they were not given the opportunity to get a vaccine. So it’s not the same.”

Dr. Ma Sang-hyuk, the vice president of the Korean Vaccine Society, said it was “quite evidently the government’s responsibility to bring the vaccines to the people.”

“Our government failed to secure vaccines early, and that is why the vaccine drive has been so slow,” he said. “The right thing to do is to come clean before the public, and admit to what went wrong.”

Most Koreans say they would get vaccinated if they had the chance, according to a July survey by Seoul National University’s health communications professor Yoo Myoung-soon. Among the survey of 1,000 adults, 86.4 percent said they wished to get vaccinated.

Since the vaccination campaign began on Feb. 26, some 38 percent of 51 million people here have received at least one dose of a vaccine, and 14 percent have been fully vaccinated. For the month of July, an average of 90,335 doses were administered per day.

By Kim Arin (