A masked medical worker in Seoul where infections are spiking but deaths are dropping. Photo: AFP / Ed Jones

After personal intervention by President Moon Jae-in, South Korea has secured Covid-19 vaccines for 20 million people from US biotech firm Moderna, and will take delivery in the second quarter of 2021.

The news was announced by Moon’s office, and may come as a relief to many amid a third wave of infections nationwide.

But it may have citizens wondering what is taking so long, given that the EU, UK and US, among others, are already engaged in mass vaccinations.

Moreover, while Seoul has handled Covid-19 containment far better than Washington in terms of infections and deaths, both per capita and per population, US Forces based in South Korea started their own vaccination program Tuesday, months ahead of Seoul’s likely rollout.

The presidential office said Tuesday that after Moon spoke by videoconference with Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel on Monday, the firm – which, along with Pfizer and Astra Zeneca, is among the leading pharmaceutical firms competing in the Covid-19 vaccine space – had agreed to supply enough vaccines for 20 million people.

Pricing will be negotiated by the end of the year. It is the second deal Seoul has signed, having inked a deal with AstraZeneca earlier in the month.

Dithering response

Amid public concern, opposition criticism and a fall in his personal approval to the 40% range as a third wave of infections rolls across the country, Moon had said on Monday that Korea would begin inoculations in February, though he did not detail how many, or with which vaccines.

And his intervention with Moderna was made public two days after the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety said Sunday that it would slash the approval period for vaccines and treatments from an average of 180 days to as few as 40.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare said on December 8 that it had pre-ordered 68 million doses of vaccines produced by four manufacturers – AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen and Moderna – for 34 million people. Moreover, the World Health Organization’s global vaccine project, known as COVAX, would supply enough vaccines developed by AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Sanopi for 10 million people.

South Korea has 51 million inhabitants.

Moderna’s Covid vaccine. South Korea has secured doses for 20 million people. Photo: AFP

The ministry said on the same day that it had signed a deal with AstraZeneca, and that it hoped to sign contracts with the other firms by the end of the year.

With the details of the AstraZeneca deal, notably its delivery timing, not yet disclosed, Tuesday’s news adds at least some concrete information on vaccine rollouts.

The country successfully mastered the first two waves of Covid-19 in the spring and the summer with a globally admired combination of extensive testing and high-tech tracing, and so had originally planned to roll out vaccines in the third quarter.

However, the third wave, with clusters small and large popping up nationwide, is proving far harder to contain than earlier, more easily traceable clusters.

The country saw a record high of 1,216 Covid infections on Christmas Day and another 1,046 cases Tuesday. And on Monday, the first cases of the highly transmissible new virus from the UK were recorded.

The latecomer’s advantage

Speaking off-the-record after a press conference earlier this year – when vaccines had not finalized their stage 3 trials or won regulators’ approval – a senior health official told Asia Times that the nascent plan was to undertake a national vaccination program late in 2021.

That late deployment would grant Korea – which at that point had a successful Covid containment strategy – the opportunity to see which vaccines were most effective, avoid first-mover risks and pitfalls, and benefit from lower prices, the official said.

The semi-official Yonhap news confirmed in an article Tuesday that the original government plan had been for a third-quarter vaccination program. Yonhap further noted that the amount acquired from Moderna was double the amount that had originally been planned for.

Clearly, though the third wave has forced an acceleration of these schedules.

A member of the United States Forces Korea receives the first round of the Moderna vaccine at Osan Air Base, south of Seoul. Photo: Handout

Mortifyingly, South Korea’s most at-risk populations – frontline health workers, the elderly and those suffering health conditions that predispose them to Covid-19 – will be waiting for months while thousands of young, fit individuals on their soil receive vaccines: the 28,500-strong US Forces in Korea.

Transparency clouded

The conservative opposition is scathing about Seoul’s dithering vaccine schedule that looks – at best – to be months behind other countries.

 “The only way to save the people is to secure vaccines,” the Peoples Power Party said in a florid policy statement on Monday. Accusing the president of making “rosy predictions” – apparently a reference to Moon’s statement that vaccinations could begin in February – the PPP said Moon had “dismissed concerns about the vaccine and emphasized that sufficient doses and preparations for vaccination are proceeding smoothly.”

But “unlike the president’s hope, the public is now questioning the government’s vaccine policies and standards of quarantine” the PPP said.

Indeed, opacity also clouds quarantine policy

Seoul has mandated “Level  2.5” social distancing guidelines, which, among other measures, close indoor sports facilities, restrict restaurant opening times to 9:00pm and require cafes to serve take-out only. Last week, the government added to these measures with an ad hoc ban on gatherings of four people or more in an apparent move to pre-empt year-end parties.

The next policy meeting on social distancing is set for January 3. Senior officials have publicly agonized over applying the most stringent guidelines, “Level 3,” due to the economic damage it would do to more than 2 million small businesses at the lower end of the economy.

While it is still not clear whether Level 3 will be implemented, many questions hang over what it constitutes.

Official documents say that “non-essential facilities will close,” and “only essential employees” will be allowed to go to work. But these are vagaries are not backed by detail.

When Asia Times queried the government about the situation for shops, restaurants and cafes, the response from the Ministry of Health and Welfare was that “guidelines and details for Level 3 are not finalized yet.”

Further information may be forthcoming via “press release or press reference from MOHW later,” it added.