(ATTN: UPDATES with Cheong Wa Dae's response in paras 13-15)
SEOUL, Feb. 22 (Yonhap) -- The main opposition People Power Party (PPP) on Monday demanded that President Moon Jae-in be the first recipient of a COVID-19 vaccine under the government's imminent public vaccine program, amid a controversy over the efficacy of AstraZeneca vaccines on older people.
South Korea will begin its public COVID-19 inoculation program with AstraZeneca vaccines Friday, with the first jabs to be administered to staff members and patients under the age of 65 at senior care hospitals and facilities.
The government, however, has decided to postpone AstraZeneca vaccine shots for people aged 65 or older until further data, including the result of the phase three clinical trials, is obtained, amid a growing controversy over the efficacy of AstraZeneca vaccines for seniors.
"We still don't know who will be the No. 1 recipient of a vaccine. Many questions are being raised on the safety of AstraZeneca (vaccines), alongside the issue of its immunization rate," PPP floor leader Rep. Joo Ho-young said during a party leadership meeting.
Joo demanded that Moon and government authorities in power be the first to receive vaccinations in order to ease anxieties over the safety "if the government is to recommend the public receive inoculations."
Kim Chong-in, interim PPP leader, also suggested that Moon should be the first to be vaccinated. "Those in power should decide for themselves on who should be the first recipient to relieve the anxieties of the people," Kim told reporters.
Rep. Ha Tae-keung echoed the demand, saying that a vaccine "that the president won't receive should also not be given to the people."
Key members of the ruling Democratic Party (DP), meanwhile, blasted the PPP, arguing that its demand is "aimed at amplifying the mistrust" surrounding vaccines.
"Amplifying fear and spreading anti-science (beliefs) is an anti-social scheme," DP Rep. Shin Dong-kun, a supreme council member of the party, commented on the PPP's demand.
DP Rep. Yang Hyang-ja said she questioned the PPP's motive in attempting to tie the president to the vaccine safety debate.
"If the president were to receive an early vaccination, they would argue it was vaccine privilege," Yang said.
Rep. Lee Nak-yon, the head of the ruling party, stressed that the vaccine debate should be approached within the realm of science, and stated that the DP and the government will do their best to facilitate fair and swift inoculations with the public's trust.
A senior Cheong Wa Dae official told reporters that the government vaccine program will proceed as scheduled, but also said there were no reasons for the president to shy away from being inoculated first if the mistrust of vaccines reached a national level.
"We don't rule out the possibility (of the president potentially being vaccinated first) if mistrust is formed," the official said.
Moon, 68, stated last month during a New Year's press conference that he won't avoid the responsibility of leading by example if the public's anxiety on coronavirus vaccines rises sharply and the public begin to avoid receiving inoculations.
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