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Moderna delays once again threaten Korea’s vaccine rollout

Romania to supply Korea with 1.5 million doses of Pfizer, Moderna vaccines

Photo shows Minister of Health and Welfare Kwon Deok-cheol bowing at an Aug. 9 news briefing. In the briefing, the minister had apologized over delays in Moderna deliveries and the consequent slowdown in rollout. (Yonhap)
Photo shows Minister of Health and Welfare Kwon Deok-cheol bowing at an Aug. 9 news briefing. In the briefing, the minister had apologized over delays in Moderna deliveries and the consequent slowdown in rollout. (Yonhap)


South Korea said Wednesday that any further delay in deliveries from Moderna could jeopardize the country’s goal to reach 70 percent first-shot rate by mid-September.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency’s head of vaccine planning committee, Hong Jeong-ik, told reporters in a closed-door briefing that without the additional supply from Moderna, vaccinating 70 percent of the Korean population with at least one dose of a vaccine by the Sept. 18 deadline “could be a stretch.”

Hong added that it was not clear when the next batch would come in.

While the Ministry of Health and Welfare previously said Korea was due to receive 7 million doses from Moderna by the end of this week, only 1 million doses had made it into the country.

The ministry said Moderna had said in a communication in late July that the company was halving its initially promised August deliveries of 8.5 million doses to Korea due to “manufacturing issues.” 

The disruption in supply forced Korea to lengthen the dosing interval between the two doses of vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna to six weeks, deviating from the standard regimen of three weeks for Pfizer vaccine and four weeks for Moderna’s.

In a separate negotiation, the ministry said 1.05 million Pfizer doses and 450,000 Moderna doses were being supplied from Romania to add to Korea’s COVID-19 vaccine stockpile, which stood at 9.5 million doses as of Tuesday.

As the fourth wave of infections drags on, hospitals have been consistently at full or near-full capacity. In all of North Gyeongsang Province, only one critical care bed for COVID-19 patients remained by Tuesday afternoon. Cities including Daejeon and Sejong reported having fewer than three such beds. 

The number of patients critically sick with COVID-19 has surged past 400 in the last seven days, up significantly from around 150 in the early stages of the latest surge seen since the first week of July, figures showed Wednesday.

People in their 50s, the vast majority of whom received their first-dose vaccinations in August, accounted for more than a third of the critical cases.

“Not all patients who end up developing severe symptoms are at advanced ages or have concomitant diseases. In fact, even patients in their 50s or younger without risk factors for COVID-19 have fallen seriously sick,” said Dr. Eom Joong-sik, an infectious disease specialist at a designated COVID-19 hospital in Incheon.

“But one common denominator among these patients is that they haven’t been vaccinated yet, or just partly vaccinated.”

Meanwhile the Korean health and medical workers’ union said it would stage a nationwide strike over poor working conditions, if the final round of negotiations with the government fails.

The union said front-line jobs are “unbearable,” and that the government has failed to address them over the pandemic. 

“It’s been a year and 8 months. Health care workers are burned out as is,” the union said in a statement. 

Among other things, the union called for instituting hazard pay, increasing staffing at COVID-19 hospitals and mandating nurse-to-patient ratios. 

Those in charge of critical, emergency care as well as non-elective surgeries, however, won’t take part, in order to protect patients with urgent needs, the union said.

Ahead of the final round of talks late Wednesday afternoon, Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum urged the union to drop the planned walkout, and make “people’s health and safety” the top priority. 

The prime minister said now was a time when health care workers were “most needed” on the front lines, and that it will be the patients who “suffer the most” if they were to leave their work.

In the 24-hour period ending Tuesday at midnight, 388,081 doses of vaccines had gone into arms in Korea. Over the month of August, an average of 285,969 doses were administered each day, more than triple the daily average of 90,335 doses reported the month before.

More than six months into the national program, 57 percent of the 51 million people in the country have received at least one dose of a vaccine, while 30 percent have been fully vaccinated.

The target date set out by President Moon Jae-in for meeting the 70 percent first-dose rate is by Sept. 18, when this year’s Chuseok comes around. Moon said he aimed to see more “normal” around the national holiday.

Easing in protective restrictions is being mulled for Chuseok family gatherings and celebrations, according to the Health Ministry, the details of which will be announced later this week.

From October, vaccine eligibility is being expanded to include pregnant women and minors under 18 years of age. So far, the vaccine program has covered adults aged 18 and above.

Korea on Wednesday counted 2,025 positive cases from 168,149 tests conducted, which translates to a positivity rate of 1.2 percent. In August a total of 53,085 patients were diagnosed with COVID-19, of whom 190 died.

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)

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