Employees work on a COVID-19 testing kits production line at Humasis in Gunpo, Gyeonggi, Wednesday. (Yonhap)
The South Korean government is mulling over whether to provide free self-testing kits for COVID-19 and who to give them to, amid growing supply shortage fears induced by recent changes in pandemic treatment measures.
Demand for self-test kits has surged since the government began to prioritize high-risk groups on Feb. 3, including those aged 60 and over, for access to immediate polymerase chain reaction tests.
Under the new system aimed at dealing with the omicron-fueled COVID-19 wave, the rest of the people are required to test positive via a rapid antigen test to get a PCR test.
“We are considering ways to provide free self-test kits for those under the age of 60,” Son Young-rae, spokesperson for the Ministry of Health and Welfare, said during a radio show Wednesday.
Details of the self-test kit handout program is in discussion. “There are some people who need a self-test kit and some who don’t, so there is a problem with the efficiency of provision,” the senior official said.
Ahn Cheol-soo, the minor opposition People’s Party’s presidential candidate, is the latest political figure to call for free at-home test kits.
“In order to ease the burden of testing and prevent the spread, a certain number of self-test kits should be provided free of charge to all people, just like the United States or Singapore,” he said during a party meeting at the National Assembly on Thursday.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Kim Bu-gyeom ruled out the possibility of giving out free test kits for everyone, citing production volume limits.
“About 200 million kits are produced a year, of which 100 million kits have to be exported. It is difficult to carry out a free kit program with them,” he said.
As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases surpassed 50,000 for the first time on Thursday, concerns are growing about a shortage of self-test kits.
While some pharmacies and convenience stores quickly ran out of stock, prices soared on online shopping sites.
For instance, a test kit produced by SD BioSensor for a single testing, which was sold for 8,000 won ($6.69) at a pharmacy in Seoul on Jan. 29, is now going for 27,900 won via online retailer Coupang.