Will US loan COVID-19 vaccines to S. Korea?

Posted on : 2021-04-21 17:43 KST Modified on : 2021-04-21 17:43 KST
Vaccine cooperation with the US may be unlikely to happen for the time being
Minister of Foreign Affairs Chung Eui-yong testifies Tuesday before the National Assembly Committee on Foreign Affairs and Unification. (Yonhap News)
Minister of Foreign Affairs Chung Eui-yong testifies Tuesday before the National Assembly Committee on Foreign Affairs and Unification. (Yonhap News)

Minister of Foreign Affairs Chung Eui-yong said that Seoul is “in serious discussions” with the US over a vaccine swap arrangement.

The vaccine swap arrangement discussed Tuesday at the National Assembly is a system in which South Korea, which is suffering difficulties at the moment with its COVID-19 vaccine supplies, would receive a portion from the US, which it would repay at a later date.

People Power Party lawmaker Park Jin previously proposed an arrangement in which South Korea would receive emergency assistance with vaccines or vaccine raw materials from the US, which would be repaid later on with vaccines produced by South Korean pharmaceutical companies.

But the approach now under examination by Seoul appears to be even more comprehensive.

The South Korean government said that it examined Park’s proposal last year and concluded that it was not feasible. At the time, vaccines were in short supply globally.

According to administration sources, the approach first began to change after it received word that the US would free up some of its vaccine volumes around May.

After announcing in early March that it would enable all adult Americans to receive COVID-19 vaccination as of May, the Joe Biden administration presented plans in early April to finish administering first doses to the majority of Americans by late May.

As of Monday, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that 132.3 million adult Americans had received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, representing more than half of all American adults.

The US has secured a total of 1.2 billion COVID-19 doses — enough for 750 million people, or around three times the US adult population of 260 million.

Other reasons given for the South Korean government becoming more aggressive about pursuing a vaccine swap arrangement include the fact that the vaccines produced by AstraZeneca, Moderna and Pfizer remain effective for six months, as well as the hope that the US will decide not to discard unused vaccines.

“When the vaccine developers sign contracts, there are stipulations that you can’t provide [the vaccines] to other countries,” a government official explained.

“If you have any left over, you can’t give them to another country. You have to discard them all,” the official said.

But the Biden administration confirmed that it reached an agreement in March to loan 4 million vaccine doses to Mexico and Canada. The amount included doses of the AZ vaccine, which has not been approved for use in the US. In effect, the US government played a role in lifting the “discarding” provisions that the vaccine developers had imposed.

The South Korean government also reportedly discussed vaccine cooperation during a March visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and a visit on Friday and Saturday by US special presidential envoy John Kerry.

In a March 18 briefing, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki confirmed that the US had “7 million releasable doses available” of the AZ vaccine and “anticipate[d] having additional doses of Moderna, of Pfizer, of a range of vaccines.”

She also said the US was having “conversations” about vaccine supplies with countries in Europe and Asia.

A South Korean official said, “In our case, it’s less about a shortage of volume per se than about our need to acquire [the vaccines] quickly, so it would be a case where we borrow the US vaccines first and then repay it with our own vaccines when they arrive later on.”

Despite the positive signals, the response from the US shared by Chung before the National Assembly Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee that day was not encouraging.

“The US is very strongly committed to succeeding with the achievement of herd immunity by this summer, and they explained to us that they really don’t have all that much vaccine available to achieve that,” he said.

“We might consider something where [supplies to South Korea] are a priority after that [achievement of herd immunity],” he continued.

“But the initial response at the current stage was that it would not be that easy,” he added, suggesting that the US balked at the South Korean government’s request for cooperation on COVID-19 vaccine supplies.

Other evidence supporting this response from Washington include the fact that the US has been declining to lift control on experts of vaccine materials and equipment as it seeks to achieve herd immunity by this summer, and the mention of a possible need for “booster shots” to bolster the vaccines’ effects.

A decision on whether booster shots will be needed is expected to come sometime between late summer and early fall, which means that vaccine cooperation with the US may be unlikely to happen for the time being.

In that respect, other governments besides South Korea’s have reportedly been formulating plans for vaccine self-sufficiency in consideration of the situation from 2022 onward while reaching out to pursue other avenues of cooperation.

For now, Seoul appears to be focusing its diplomatic capacities on discussions with individual pharmaceutical companies on additional vaccine acquisition while seeking to achieve vaccine cooperation results at the South Korea-US summit scheduled for May.

“We supplied a large volume of diagnostic kits and masks when the US requested it [during the early stages of the pandemic], even though domestic demand was somewhat difficult at the time. We’ve also pointed that fact out to the US,” Chung noted.

“We will be doing our utmost to have a more positive result by the time the South Korea-US summit takes place,” he added, quoting the saying, “A friend in need is a friend indeed.”

By Kim Ji-eun, staff reporter

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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