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NK’s vaccine refusal may be due to side effects, efficacy concerns

COVID-19 vaccine (123rf)
COVID-19 vaccine (123rf)

North Korea has turned down some million doses of COVID-19 vaccines, which may be largely out of concerns about side-effects as well as mistrust over the vaccine efficacy, pundits have said.

The reclusive regime recently rejected about 3 million doses of China’s Sinovac Biotech vaccine, and asked for them to be sent to other severely affected countries instead, according to the UNICEF, which is in charge of distributing doses on behalf of the COVAX facility -- a multinational program that provides vaccines to lower-income countries.

North Korea was also supposed to receive 2 million doses of AstraZeneca shots via the COVAX scheme, but the regime rejected them in July apparently over side effect concerns, according to the Institute for National Security Strategy, a think tank run by South Korea’s spy agency.

Nagi Shafik, the former project manager for the World Health Organization office in Pyongyang, echoed a similar view that the regime’s hesitance to accept vaccines may be due to reports of rare complications and efficacy concerns, according to the South China Morning Post.

“It may sound strange, but when trying to understand, I think perhaps they are concerned about the possible side effects of the AstraZeneca vaccine,” Shakif told the SCMP. “As for the Sinovac, perhaps they think, like many other countries in the world, it is not efficient enough.”

The INSS also said that North appears reluctant on Chinese vaccines as it views the shots to be not as effective and safe, while it is more optimistic about Russia’s vaccine, Sputnik V.

The North, however, has been waging a tougher anti-epidemic steps more recently, with Kim warning of “prolonged” coronavirus measures, indicating the country is not ready to lift its strict lockdown anytime soon.

“Tightening epidemic prevention is the task of paramount importance which must not be loosened even a moment under the present situation,“ North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said during a politburo meeting Thursday, according to the Korea Central News Agency.

While Kim stressed the need to accept advanced anti-epidemic technology, he called for the need to fight the pandemic in “our style.”

Pyongyang continues to claim it has had zero coronavirus infections, but observers say an outbreak there cannot be ruled out, given its exchanges and trade with neighboring China. But since the onset of the pandemic, the North has imposed the strictest quarantine measures of any nation, shutting down its borders and suspending international trade to prevent the spread of the virus.

Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat-turned-defector and now an opposition lawmaker, said Saturday the North doesn’t find it “appealing” on obtaining vaccines from foreign countries.

“North Korea is a country ruled by the supreme leader, which means the supreme leader has to be at the center of saving North Koreans from crisis,” Thae said in a public statement. “If the country overcame a crisis with the support from the outside, the authority of the supreme leader could crumble.”

He added that the North’s currently touting to be coronavirus-free could serve as a good opportunity to solidify authority of Kim inside the country.

“COVID-19 is a crisis to the North, but at the same time serves as a good opportunity to strengthen its internal control system,” he said, noting the border lockdown has blocked information flow and transfer of goods from outside.


By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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