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[News Focus] Who is responsible for Korea's late entry in vaccine race?

Korea was five months late, but Moon was on top of his stuff from early on, Blue House says

President Moon Jae-in (center) speaks Tuesday during a meeting with the five highest national leaders at the Blue House in Seoul. (Yonhap)
President Moon Jae-in (center) speaks Tuesday during a meeting with the five highest national leaders at the Blue House in Seoul. (Yonhap)
The government is facing growing criticism over the apparent lag in Korea procuring sufficient COVID-19 vaccines, with a blame game erupting over who is responsible.

President Moon Jae-in said in a meeting Tuesday that efforts were well underway to ensure Korea has enough vaccine doses for its people, hitting back at accusations that he has been too slow in acquiring vaccines, which already have reached the public in a number of countries.

“I believe public inoculation in our country will begin not too late, and preparations are well under way,” Moon said.

Cheong Wa Dae later revealed that Moon ordered the procurement of a sufficient amount of COVID-19 vaccine doses in as early as April, disclosing details of 12 instructions that Moon made on vaccine development and purchasing.

In disclosing the instructions, Blue House spokesperson Kang Min-seok called for an end to the “politicization of vaccines,” accusing reports that “distorted and exaggerated the facts as if President Moon had his hands off of securing vaccines” of being untrue and exaggerated.

Yet the records only add fuel to criticism that the government was tardy in purchasing vaccines from foreign companies, as Moon gave more emphasis to the local development of COVID-19 vaccines, rather than purchasing ones made overseas by more experienced developers.

Of the 12 instructions that the Blue House revealed, nine encouraged local companies to develop coronavirus vaccines, with two of the nine concerning SK Bioscience’s contract manufacturing of a vaccine candidate from AstraZeneca.

The earliest instruction on securing vaccines from overseas was made in a meeting held Sept. 15, which is when Moon called for officials to “secure enough vaccine supplies through global pharmaceutical companies,” according to the Blue House.

However, many countries began making deals to purchase vaccines as early as the summer months, when initial clinical trial results started to come in from companies like Pfizer and Moderna.

The US in July agreed to a deal with Pfizer and BioNTech to buy 100 million doses of their COVID-19 vaccine, and Japan signed a deal to buy their vaccine for 60 million people the same month.

Five months later in early December, Korea announced it had ordered COVID-19 vaccines for 44 million people but mentioned that it had only signed an official contract with AstraZeneca for 10 million people.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare then said it would ink contracts with Pfizer, Moderna and Janssen within this month but no further announcement has been made since.

Moon’s instructions released by Cheong Wa Dae contradict those of other high-level officials who had earlier explained that the country was slow to make a move on the vaccines due to safety concerns and Korea’s relatively stable COVID-19 situation.

The presidential office emphasized in the Tuesday statement that Moon has focused on securing vaccine supplies from early on, which still fails to answer why Korea was late in securing vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna and Janssen.

Critics say that Moon is avoiding his share of the responsibility, and indirectly putting the blame on other relevant agencies and key officials.

“Other countries saw their top leaders take care of the vaccine issue themselves,” Ahn Cheol-soo, the head of the minor opposition People’s Party, wrote in a Facebook post Tuesday.

“People’s lives are at stake in this, and what the president should be doing is not casting the responsibility to others but preparing solutions.”

According to government data obtained by Rep. Baek Jong-hean of the main opposition People Power Party, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency held its first official discussion on purchasing COVID-19 vaccines from overseas on Nov. 27, more than two months after Moon called for securing vaccine supplies from lead developers.

The KDCA meeting discussed exempting responsibility for its officials if their attempts to buy foreign COVID-19 vaccines run into problems.

The agency on Nov. 23 earned approval to make pre-purchases of COVID-19 vaccines from the Board of Audit and Inspection, the records showed.

KDCA was already backed by law to sign contracts with vaccine developers, as legislation states that its commissioner can pre-purchase treatments and preventative medicines during a virus outbreak.

But some have raised possibility that the KDCA was rather passive in inking deals for COVID-19 vaccines as the disease control agency, then-named Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was criticized for buying too much vaccine during the novel influenza outbreak in 2009.

According to the Health Ministry, Korea threw away 7 million doses, worth 75 billion won ($67.6 million), of influenza vaccines after spending 240 billion won to secure a substantial supply.

“There are no specific guidelines on pre-purchasing. (The KCDC) was heavily criticized during the annual audit in 2010 for discarding influenza vaccine supplies,” said Rep. Shin Hyun-young of the Democratic Party in a hearing Tuesday.

“This atmosphere seems to have prevented civil workers from making bold decisions to buy vaccines.”

By Ko Jun-tae (