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Health minister addresses flu vaccine fiasco

Sept. 23, 2020 - 18:20 By Kim Arin
Minister of Health and Welfare Park Neung-hoo speaks during a meeting at the National Assembly on Wednesday. (Yonhap)

Ministry of Health and Welfare Park Neung-hoo on Wednesday said he would apologize over an unprecedented flop involving flu vaccinations once it is “established that there have been errors made.”  He also said he “regrets” the inconvenience caused to the public.

The government plan to immunize up to 57 percent of the population against seasonal flu is facing a major setback after instances of mishandling some millions of doses were reported Monday. The free vaccination program, which kicked off earlier this month, is now on hold for at least the next two weeks.

“A thorough investigation will be carried out to identify the facts. Once the facts are determined, I will apologize for things that went wrong,” the minister said in a Wednesday meeting of the health and welfare committee within the parliament, while adding “the concerns over the vaccines may be excessive.”

“The damage done to flu vaccines is not anticipated to be too great,” he said. “Based on what’s been revealed so far, the time the vaccines were left in the heat is suspected to be only about an hour.”

Public health authorities said Tuesday that if the vaccines in question are not proven to be safe and effective, they will be discarded.

Amid mounting uncertainties, the Health Ministry announced the same day that a further 1.05 million people in socially vulnerable groups will be eligible for free flu vaccinations. 

The stock of the flu vaccine necessary to include the extra people in state coverage would be supplied with the doses originally allotted to private clinics and hospitals.

Kim Gang-lip, the vice health minister, said in a news briefing, “Due to the time and other constraints, neither importing nor producing more (flu vaccines) locally are viable options.” The details of the plan, including how the costs will be covered, have not yet been discussed with private health care providers, he said.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said in an urgent message Monday evening that an oversight had occurred in the course of delivery of a batch of flu jabs meant for free inoculation. Some 5 million doses are now under investigation by the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety for their safety and potency.

Shinsung pharmaceutical company, the subcontractor in charge of vaccine distribution, told local media outlets Wednesday that the amount of doses exposed to unsafe conditions is believed to be around 2.5 million, denying that all 5 million have been affected.

The other 11 million doses for people not covered by the government program are safe, according to public health authorities.

Jung Eun-kyeong, the director of the national health agency, said in a Tuesday briefing that the agency plans to look into vaccine handling and storage practices to prevent a recurrence.

By Kim Arin (