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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Dec. 9)

All News 07:14 December 09, 2020

Ensure safety of vaccines
It is necessary to monitor possible side effects

South Korea has secured the supply of coronavirus vaccines for 44 million people. The vaccines will be supplied as early as February on a step-by-step basis. The inoculation process, however, is expected to start later as it takes time to ensure the safety and efficacy of the vaccines.

On Tuesday, the Ministry of Health and Welfare announced that it had preordered 64 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to be made by four global pharmaceutical firms. AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna will provide 20 million doses each to the country. Their products require two shots. Four million doses will come from Johnson & Johnson's Janssen, which calls for one shot. The purchases will cover 34 million people.

The ministry also plans to supply additional doses for 10 million people through the World Health Organization's global vaccine supply platform, COVAX Facility. If the two-track procurement plan is successfully implemented, the government can inoculate 88 percent of the population. The ministry has already signed a preorder contract with AstraZeneca, and another deal with three other drug makers will be initialed later this month. The government has earmarked 1.3 trillion won ($1.2 billion) for the vaccine purchases.

The supply plan came amid growing concerns about the third wave of COVID-19 infections. The health authorities raised the social distancing measures to Level 2.5 Tuesday to cope with the resurgent pandemic. The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reported 594 new infections the previous day, with the total caseload rising to 38,755. The daily figure is worrisome although it edged down from 615 Sunday and 631 Saturday.

While the vaccine procurement raises hope that the country can defeat the pandemic next year, it is still too early to paint too rosy a picture because we have to meet challenges down the road. For starters, the safety of vaccines has yet to be proven 100 percent. That is why the companies have demanded that purchasing countries, including South Korea, should accept a clause exempting vaccine producers from any responsibility for potential side effects.

In a briefing with reporters, Health and Welfare Minister Park Neung-hoo raised the question of the fairness concerning the exemption provisions. But he said his ministry had to accept the clause because of soaring demand for vaccines amid the rapid upsurge in COVID-19 infections. He promised to make all-out efforts to ensure vaccine safety.

The health authorities should do their best to keep Park's promise. They must set up a system to monitor any side effects here and abroad. It is also important to put a cold supply chain in place as some vaccines, including those of Pfizer, need to be stored in ultra-low temperatures as low as minus 70 degrees Celsius. It is also important to make sure that those vulnerable to the virus, including the elderly and frontline healthcare workers, should be prioritized for vaccination.

The government must also actively support domestic pharmaceutical companies in developing vaccines and treatments. Genexine, SK Bioscience, GeneOne Life Science, Cellid and other firms are conducting clinical trials. The country needs to turn the crisis into an opportunity to show its prowess in devising vaccines and treatments for the coronavirus.

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