NATIONAL

As COVID-19 vaccine results pour in, Korea says it’s not behind

By Kim Arin

Purchases to be finalized before year is over, according to top officials

  • Published : Dec 3, 2020 - 18:23
  • Updated : Dec 13, 2020 - 00:26

Vials with a sticker reading, "COVID-19 / Coronavirus vaccine / Injection only" and a medical syringe are seen in front of a displayed Pfizer logo in this illustration taken October 31, 2020. (Yonhap-Reuters)

The South Korean government said Thursday that it plans to procure enough doses to vaccinate up to 60 percent of people in the country, amid concerns Korea may be lagging behind other countries in securing its share.

A senior official at the Ministry of Health and Welfare told reporters the government was “in touch with pharmaceutical companies with all the promising results,” but declined to comment on the status of procurements just yet, saying such a disclosure could affect the ongoing negotiations.

As for some local media reports that said Korea had reached a deal with the UK-based AstraZeneca, he said “nothing really can be confirmed at this stage.”

“The government is still in the process of pursuing deals with individual companies. Any announcement regarding vaccine procurement will come after agreements are finalized, possibly within this month,” he said.

An AstraZeneca Korea officer said over the phone that the company, “as one of the candidates,” was reluctant to comment publicly after the ministry refused to provide details.

Among the front-runner COVID-19 vaccines, AstraZeneca’s has been floated as the best option available for Korea. The vaccine is easier to store and transport, at a normal refrigerator temperature, and can be manufactured domestically.

Health Minister Park Neung-hoo said in a Nov. 26 parliamentary hearing that Korea “has the upper hand” in procuring the AstraZeneca vaccine, as “significant quantities” are set to be made here.

In touting the AstraZeneca vaccine as Korea’s most probable choice, the minister took issue with the scientific credibility of vaccines from its competitors, Moderna and Pfizer. “Efficacy of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are purportedly over 90 percent effective, but those results are based on trials that involve only a small group of participants,” he said.

That is far from true, according to virologist Dr. Paik Soon-young at Catholic University of Korea’s college of medicine. The Pfizer trial was the largest yet with 43,000 participants, and Moderna’s also involved a sizable group of 30,000 participants.

“The (Pfizer and Moderna) information on over 90 percent vaccine efficacy means 9 out of 10 who had received the investigational product were protected from COVID-19. This is a level of protection higher than that observed with flu vaccine, which is around 50 to 60 percent,” he said.

Paik agreed the AstraZeneca vaccine was “probably most attainable” for Korea, priced much cheaper at only a few dollars a dose and free of the cold chain challenges presaged with the other two vaccines. It is also chimpanzee adenovirus-based, the same vaccine platform used for influenza.

Top government officials say Korea is “not in an urgent need to rush into deals,” and that it would carefully weigh its options for the right price and wait until more information is available regarding safety. 

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency’s deputy director Kwon Jun-wook said in a recent briefing that Korea would “watch the results from countries that are first to be vaccinated” to see if there are safety issues, before inking a deal. The goal is to start vaccinating people by the latter half of next year, he said.

In an email exchange with The Korea Herald, the International Vaccine Institute’s chief Dr. Jerome H. Kim said in light of what happened with the flu vaccine rollout this year, the Korean government was “rightfully careful.”

In October, over a million doses of the flu vaccine were withdrawn following logistical errors and contamination. The number of deaths among flu vaccine takers this year is 108, the public health agency’s report showed over the weekend. So far, health officials have determined the deaths are coincidental.

Among the biggest questions are concerns about safety and efficacy, as the vaccines are being developed at a record pace.

“Safety is a very important issue. After vaccination, most of the side effects occur in the first two weeks. Very rarely you find side effects occurring out to two months and authorization in the US will not be granted until on the average all volunteers have about two months of follow-up.”

Pfizer and Moderna each filed for emergency use authorization for their vaccines with the US Food and Drug Administration last month, according to their press releases.

“The two RNA vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna certainly have high levels of protection against COVID-19. The AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine has lower overall efficacy but has some important features,” he said.

For instance, the AstraZeneca vaccine appeared to reduce the number of asymptomatic infections, which the other two vaccines did not report on, he said. “Reduction in asymptomatic infection may have important and beneficial effects on protection of society against the spread of COVID-19 -- one of the aims of public vaccination programs.”

Kim added, “Again, it is very important to see the actual data. Right now most of us have only seen the press releases.”

Korea is not officially known to have purchased any of the leading vaccines yet, but additional data is expected to come from other companies as well.

Dr. Anh Wartel, another expert at the IVI, said other vaccine platforms such as protein-based ones “should theoretically elicit a high immune response, which may hopefully be translated into high vaccine efficacy.”

Korea will also have access to 20 million doses via the COVAX facility, an international initiative led by the World Health Organization for fair vaccine distribution. “There should be wider availability of vaccine by the middle of 2021. When Korea will get its allocation of vaccine from the COVAX facility and when its purchased doses arrive is still too early to tell,” said Kim of the IVI.

Meanwhile, some experts suggest Korea should expand its options, instead of waiting for more assurance.

“Full data on safety and efficacy will not be available in the next couple of months. By then, there might not be much left to negotiate,” said infectious disease specialist Dr. Kim Woo-joo of the Korea University Medical Center in Guro, southern Seoul.

Asked if Korea was going to end up with vaccines from multiple companies, an official at the public health agency replied, “That’s the hope. But it depends on which of the deals come through.”

“Some vaccines are going to work better than others, and some might go on to cause problems -- we don’t have the luxury of knowing at this point, which is why we should keep our options open,” said Kim of the Korea University Medical Center.

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)