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Anti-piracy omitted from vaccination plan

A service member of the Cheonghae Unit is waving a hand to reporters as he heads to a COVID treatment center from Seoul Air Base where the unit was airlifted from Africa on Tuesday. The anti-piracy unit, which had reported a massive COVID outbreak, cut short its mission. (Yonhap)
A service member of the Cheonghae Unit is waving a hand to reporters as he heads to a COVID treatment center from Seoul Air Base where the unit was airlifted from Africa on Tuesday. The anti-piracy unit, which had reported a massive COVID outbreak, cut short its mission. (Yonhap)
Military and health authorities had not looked to vaccinate the country’s anti-piracy warship off the coast of Africa, despite opportunities along the way. And when the COVID-19-hit unit returned home Tuesday, it was the first time the military had cut an overseas mission short.

The military, which has said the seamen could not get COVID shots because they had little expertise in handling a possible allergic reaction to the vaccine or the ability to manage extreme storage conditions for the vaccine onboard, essentially admitted that it had neglected to find ways to look after its own.

A discussion had taken place on vaccinating overseas soldiers, but the 301-strong Cheonghae Unit -- of which 247 returned here infected, including the captain -- was never brought up, according to a joint statement by the Ministry of National Defense and the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency.

A vaccine shortage was seen as the major hurdle in late February, when the two bodies initially debated the issue upon the warship’s departure. But the military did not pursue the matter even after it expanded its vaccination campaign in June with US-provided Johnson & Johnson vaccines.

“Why didn’t the military use that to vaccinate the anti-piracy mission? … There may have been some miscommunication or none at all,” a military official said.

Defense Minister Suh Wook, who apologized for the military‘s worst COVID-19 outbreak on Tuesday, admitted that the military had neglected its responsibilities.

“There was an oversight. And I feel responsible for the massive outbreak. We will look at all our missions overseas and see that we do not repeat the same mistake,” Suh Wook said. Cheonghae was the only unit from four overseas missions left unvaccinated.

The military got off on the wrong foot during the March vaccination campaign, Rep. Lee Che-ik, a main opposition People Power Party lawmaker who sits on the parliamentary defense committee, said Tuesday.

The anti-piracy unit, which headed to Africa ahead of the vaccination campaign, had not attracted military attention until recently when the outbreak made headlines. The military never saw Cheonhae as a vaccine priority, Lee said, citing military communications records.

“The unit had been sidelined all along,” he said.

The military was also found to have ignored guidelines in December, when they advised priority groups that need vaccination, including warships on overseas missions, to carry COVID-19 antigen tests.

Instead, Cheonghae decided to pack COVID-19 antibody tests, which health experts say do not offer a reliable method to immediately respond to an outbreak because antibodies can take weeks to develop.

“The accuracy of the antigen tests was also debatable at the time, so we leaned on antibody tests which were FDA-approved,” a senior military official said.

On Wednesday, an additional 23 seamen tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the tally to 270 out of 301 crew who got tested again upon landing here. Three moderately ill and some others who tested positive were sent to hospitals, while the rest were placed in treatment centers.

The military suspects the outbreak started on July 2, a day after the destroyer left a nearby port where it had made a four-day supply stop. A seaman exhibited cold symptoms, followed by others. The ship’s medical staff diagnosed them with a cold despite evidence telling them otherwise.

By Choi Si-young (siyoungchoi@heraldcorp.com)
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