© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks on the occasion of the third anniversary of his inauguration at the President’s Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, on May 10, 2020. Kim Min-Hee / Pool via REUTERS
From Hyonhee Shin
SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea’s battle to increase coronavirus vaccine supplies threatens to overshadow President Moon Jae-in’s first summit with U.S. President Joe Biden.
Moon had hoped to use the Washington meeting next week to highlight South Korea’s relatively successful response to the pandemic, an important legacy in his senior year.
However, the uncertainties surrounding the vaccine launch in the country amid global bottlenecks and shipping delays are fueling public skepticism about Seoul’s goal of herd immunity by November.
This has led to calls for a deal on faster access to vaccines from the US, and possibly ignored other important issues for Moon and Biden such as North Korea policy or relations with China and Japan.
“Any first South Korea-US summit would usually be an opportunity to reaffirm the alliance, coordinate North Korea policy and build a personal relationship. This time, however, success could be measured by how we can increase vaccine supplies, and it’s not like this.” Just a deal, as others say, “a South Korean official involved in preparations for Moon’s trip told Reuters.
South Korea has given the vaccines it has received so far quickly and effectively, but it started more slowly than the US and elsewhere.
Just over 7% of its 52 million residents received at least one dose Tuesday, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).
A Reuters review of global vaccination rates shows that the percentage is similar to that in countries like Nepal and Colombia.
On paper, South Korea bought enough cans to vaccinate all 52 million residents twice.
But supply issues have raised concerns that those cans may not arrive quickly enough, prompting Seoul to ask Washington to provide some cans as part of an “exchange” for faster access to US-made shots, with more cans later domestically to produce.
Lee Ho-seung, Moon’s chief secretary, told a local radio station Wednesday that securing a “vaccine partnership” with Washington would be a top priority for the summit.
He said the United States had original technology and raw materials, while South Korea had the world’s second largest biotech manufacturing capacity, and both together could make South Korea a “global center for vaccine manufacturing.”
So far, the United States has not really wanted to play ball, the South Korean foreign minister said last month. Washington officials pointed to a still difficult home situation and shortage of doses.
Samsung (KS 🙂 BioLogics Co Ltd said a report on Wednesday that it was in talks with Pfizer Inc (NYSE 🙂 to start production of the US drug manufacturer’s COVID-19 vaccine in South Korea back in August was “not factual”.
Opposition lawmakers have proposed a number of options to persuade the United States to come to an agreement, including joining the “Quad” partnership of the United States, Japan, India and Australia, which is working together to boost vaccine production.
Others have voiced the idea of pardoning Samsung leader Jay Y. Lee, jailed on fraud and inventory tampering charges, and leveraging his investment in US semiconductor plants in the face of global chip shortages.
Moon had initially dismissed the idea as premature, but said Monday he would make a decision after reviewing public opinion.
Vaccine shortages weren’t the biggest political problem for Moon, which had already come under fire from skyrocketing house prices, an insider trading scandal, and the employment crisis.
But the crisis means Moon is no longer benefiting from previous gains in popularity from dealing with the pandemic.
A poll by Gallup Korea in late April found for the first time that negative views outweighed positive views about the government’s anti-virus and vaccination efforts – 43% had positive views compared with 85% last May.
A poll released Monday by pollster Realmeter found that nearly 30% of Koreans have selected vaccine safety as a top priority that Moon should pursue during his remainder of the term in office. Another poll on Sunday found that less than 10% expected the country to meet its herd immunity target by November.
Moon said Monday that the vaccination campaign went better than originally planned after the target of vaccinating 3 million people by April was exceeded and the herd immunity target was still achievable in November.