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World As South Korea faces a surge in coronavirus infections, its vaccine rollout is spiralling

23:25  03 may  2021
23:25  03 may  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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After a swift response to the coronavirus outbreak last year that kept cases relatively low, South Korea is suddenly finding itself in serious trouble.

The nation was hit early in the pandemic when the virus rapidly spread through a secretive Christian sect, but the government quickly instituted mass testing of its population and quarantined those found to be infected.

While the virus was ravaging Western Europe and North America through much of 2020, South Korea had crushed the curve.

Spread was low and the government was riding high in the polls as the population backed their leadership.

But a year on, the picture is very different.

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The country is on the edge of a dangerous new wave of the virus, with highly infectious variants circulating in the population.

While the US has vaccinated more than half its adults, only 3 million South Koreans, out of a population of more than 51 million, have received a dose of vaccine, according to the Korea Disease and Prevention Agency.

Less than 200,000 people have received the recommended two doses.

And yesterday, authorities confirmed dose supplies are starting to run low and fears are building of a vaccine crunch in coming days.

Support for South Korea's President Moon Jae-in has collapsed and the people are asking what went wrong.

How South Korea's rollout spun out of control

In many ways, the South Korean vaccination scheme mirrors Australia's flawed rollout plan.

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The government was slow to sign deals with pharmaceutical companies that would get the country access to the vaccine earlier, and its reliance on AstraZeneca has backfired.

It now appears that South Korea's relatively good position last year may have worked against it when it came to securing its position in the vaccine queue.

While other nations were battling out-of-control outbreaks and desperately looking for a solution, Korea did not feel the same urgency, according to Alice Tan, an internist from the MizMedi Women's Hospital in Seoul.

"I think perhaps in the initial stages of the negotiation, we did not drive as hard in terms of bargaining to get more vaccines upfront," she said.

South Korea has a strong pharmaceutical industry and there were originally hopes that one of the local companies would produce a COVID-19 vaccine.

There are currently several locally made vaccines still being tested, however, none has passed clinical trials.

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The country only announced it had secured enough foreign-made vaccine to cover the population in December 2020, weeks after the United States and the United Kingdom had already started their vaccination programs.

When South Korea finally rolled out the AstraZeneca vaccine, several people experienced the rare blood-clotting issue associated with the medication.

The incidents have eroded public faith in the vaccine, and forced the government to limit its use to South Koreans over the age of 30.

South Korea scrambles for a solution

Under pressure from a population increasingly irritated by the slow rollout, the government made a series of announcements it was then forced to walk back.

In December, the government said the country had the capacity to produce mRNA vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna. This turned out not to be possible.

And this month, it was reported that South Korea was negotiating a vaccine swap with the US —

Last week, the government announced that it had , but exactly when they would be received was unclear.

Now, as officials scramble for a solution, the virus is once again surging.

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"We're sort of at the brink of the start of our fourth wave," Dr Tan said.

"I think we were a bit overconfident in our response, and perhaps underestimated the power of the virus."

'I am very concerned'

Unlike in Australia, where even one case of the virus can be enough to put a whole city or state into lockdown, South Korea has used a suppression strategy to try to dampen the spread of the virus.

Even as cases surge, bars and restaurants are allowed to stay open until 10:00pm, and households are limited to four visitors.

"After every wave, there's just more of the virus in the community and we haven't really taken an approach of trying to eliminate the virus," Dr Tan said.

"Once it gets down to a safe level, then we open up businesses again, we try to resume normal life, and it's just been this push and pull constantly for the last 15 months."

Dr Tan said that "with a lot of tinder on the ground," and new variants of the disease in Korea, one superspreader event could cause an explosion in cases.

"One big amplification event could really set the variants off to spread. And so I am very concerned," she said.

Dr Tan said Koreans have acted admirably throughout the pandemic, but with the vaccine rollout delaying a return to normal life, patience is wearing thin.

"This has dragged on now for more than a year. And there's just a lot of fatigue. And that, of course, will lead to frustration," she said.

"We want this to be over."

Koreans try to stay positive as the pandemic drags on

Jung Jin-ha is a married mother of two young boys who lives in Seoul.

She said Koreans were thankful that the virus had been mostly kept in check by government policies and community compliance, but her life was still very different to how it was before the pandemic.

"Our daily lives are [taking the boys to] kindergarten and then coming back. And then we go to the playground for an hour or two and then go home. It's always the same," she said.

Mr Jung's sister in America has been vaccinated and hopes to travel to visit South Korea at some point this year to see her nephews.

She is envious of her sister's ability to travel internationally, but is trying to look on the bright side.

"This pandemic is not going to last forever, but it's not going to end tomorrow, so I have to cope with it," she said.

"I hope I can finally get vaccinated by this end of the year so I can be free from this."

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