President Moon Jae-in looks at syringes at a plant in Gunsan, South Korea, on Feb. 18. (Yonhap)
Politics are creeping into vaccine discussions in Korea with the country’s first jabs to be rolled out in just a few days, and scientists say they are wary of the non-experts in high offices playing politics with public health.
In a Facebook statement posted Friday, Yoo Seung-min, a onetime presidential contender of a minor conservative party, suggested that President Moon Jae-in take the AstraZeneca vaccine to boost public confidence.
“The dearth of data on the AstraZeneca vaccine’s use on older adults has led to the vaccination order in the country being tweaked. Had the administration procured vaccines from other manufacturers in time, this would not have happened,” he said.
“This misjudgment has caused the public to be rightfully concerned. Now it’s time for the president to step up, take the AstraZeneca vaccine and put the worries to rest.”
The following day, longtime Democratic Party lawmaker Rep. Jung Chung-rae took to Facebook and called the proposition “an insult to the head of the state,” adding that, “The president is not a guinea pig.”
A lawmaker from the opposition bloc immediately hit back: “Then what about the people?”
This isn’t the first time a politician from the ruling party has cast doubt on the coronavirus vaccines amid criticism the administration was slow in securing them.
Just a month ago, Democratic Party Rep. Jang Kyung-tae said the current vaccines were an “experimental substance that is not quite a vaccine yet.” He said the opposition calls for prompt vaccinations were “practically the same as requests to make the Korean people subjects of a medical experiment.”
As the bickering intensifies, the presidential office told reporters Monday that for the time being there “appeared no need yet” for Moon or other public servants to get ahead in the line for vaccines. After all, the local regulator ruled out using the AstraZeneca vaccine for anyone above the age of 65. The president is 69 years old.
Korea Disease Control and Prevention Commissioner Jung Eun-kyeong, who is spearheading the coronavirus immunization program in the country, called the political rhetoric surrounding the vaccines “inappropriate.”
“No one is a guinea pig here,” she said in response to a press question during Monday’s briefing. “These vaccines have been tested rigorously before being authorized. We know them to be safe as well as effective.”
Virology professor Dr. Paik Soon-young of Catholic University of Korea said there was “no issue with the AstraZeneca vaccine apart from its reputation being torn apart in political quarrels.”
“The AstraZeneca vaccine is already being widely administered in the UK, with strong evidence that just a single dose can reduce hospitalizations. It’s turning out to be highly capable of protecting the elderly, too,” he said.
Two polls of similar sizes taken about a week apart suggest the politics might have influenced public attitude toward vaccines.
According to Korea Society Opinion Institute Monday, 46 percent of 1,020 adults surveyed said they were unsure about taking the vaccines. This compares with last week’s survey of 1,000 adults by Gallup Korea where only 19 percent said they were feeling hesitant.
But the national health agency suspects only a few will actually refuse to be vaccinated. A Saturday survey by the agency shows much higher vaccine acceptance, with 93.8 percent of 201,464 workers and residents at long-term care facilities -- who are first in line for the AstraZeneca jabs -- saying they would take them.
“Whether to be vaccinated or not is completely up to the people, although as public health authorities we would continue to encourage vaccinations,” the agency officials said over the weekend. “There won’t be penalties or disadvantages of any sort for declining the shots.”
Dr. Son Deok-hyeon, the director of a nursing hospital in Ulsan, said internal surveys of vaccination intentions among the staff have shown over 90 percent saying they wished to be vaccinated -- a rate of willingness similar to the seasonal flu vaccines.
“Our nurses and doctors working with senior patients understand better than anyone that getting vaccinated is about saving lives. If they decide not to take the vaccines, it’s because of allergies and other health conditions they have, not because they are against vaccinations,” he said.
Public health policy professor Dr. Kim Yoon of Seoul National University called for more transparency from the top decision makers to improve public perception of vaccines.
“It’s natural that people would want to know which vaccines they would be getting and when. From the beginning such key details have been missing from the vaccine announcements, and that has led to many questions and speculations,” he said.
Korea University’s infectious disease professor Dr. Kim Woo-joo said the latest controversy was “prime example of politics getting in the way of science.”
“Our leaders have chosen some deplorable ways of deflecting criticism that Korea was lagging behind in the global vaccine race,” he said.
Referring to some pro-administration figures who over the last few months have discredited the coronavirus vaccines, microbiologist Dr. Shin Eui-cheol of Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology said they were “either ignorant or malicious.”
Rep. Kim Tae-nyeon, the Democratic Party floor leader, told a Dec. 21 supreme council meeting that “the opposition party, along with the press, are making a big deal out of why Korea isn’t getting to vaccinations as quickly.”
“Countries like the US with large case numbers have no choice but to proceed with vaccinations, and they are already reporting serious side effects such as facial paralysis among the vaccine recipients,” he said.
One senior official within the Ministry of Health and Welfare told a Dec. 23 briefing that Korea was “very fortunate to be able to observe all the possible problems caused by the vaccines in countries that are getting a head start.”
Shin said no vaccines were “100 percent without side effects.”
“We vaccinate because the benefits far outweigh the very rare risks,” he said. “In their attempts to defend the administration these politicians are doing greater harm to public health.”
By Kim Arin (firstname.lastname@example.org