South Korea will achieve herd immunity from Covid-19 by the autumn, its prime minister has told the BBC, despite a later start to its vaccination programmed.
The country was one of the first hit by the pandemic last year and became a role model for its mass testing and aggressive contact tracing measures. But vaccinations have been much slower. Health officials will start inoculating medical staff in hospitals and care homes later this week. The aim is to give some 800,000 people the jab over the next month using vaccines produced by AstraZeneca and Pfizer-BioNTech.
In an interview one year since he became the country’s coronavirus figurehead, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun defended the later rollout and said it allowed South Korean officials to see how the vaccine had fared elsewhere. “You know that Koreans are the master of speed,” said Mr Chung.
“It’s not an easy goal to achieve but we aim to complete the first set of vaccinations on 70% of our population by the end of the third quarter in September. I believe it’s possible.” The government has procured more than enough vaccine for the country’s 55 million people, but most of these supplies are not expected to arrive until around July. That gives health workers just a few months to meet the government’s deadline.
Seoul had hoped to have its own vaccine ready by the end of this year – but that is now looking unlikely. The hope of a “home-grown” jab is thought to be part of the reason the government took its time to negotiate with vaccine companies for supplies.It eventually secured contracts with Pfizer and Moderna at the end of January but not before domestic media had lambasted its approach as too relaxed.
President Moon Jae-in told me at his New Year press conference that he did not regret taking the time to get this right. But the past few months has allowed time for fear to set in. South Korea is not traditionally a country that shuns mass vaccinations. Its inoculation rate for major diseases such as hepatitis B are usually higher than those of the United States, the UK and Australia.
But a recent poll by the Korea Society Opinion Institute found that only around 45% of those asked were willing to get the Covid-19 vaccination when their turn comes in the next few months. Another 45% said they wanted to delay getting their shots to “watch the situation”. Five per cent said they would refuse to be vaccinated.
Prime Minister Chung believes people will be persuaded. “Sure, some may resist getting vaccinated but this government will encourage more people to get the jab… If the vaccine proves to be as effective as promised and if indeed herd immunity is achieved when 70% are inoculated – then by this fall Koreans may have their normal life back.” The lure of a more normal life may prove a compelling argument.
South Korea has so far managed to control the virus and live with Covid-19 without a major nationwide lock-down. But there are restrictions in place. Restaurants and small businesses in and around the capital Seoul have had a curfew of 21:00 since December. That has now been extended by an extra hour, and as winter gives way to spring, Seoul’s streets are busy. Coffee shops and bars are bustling and even nightclubs have reopened for the young – and old. Health officials announced on Monday that there had been a cluster of infections at a seniors’ disco.
Over-confidence in its own measures and a touch of complacency have led to three waves of the virus. In December, daily case numbers rose to more than 1,000. Still low by international standards, but it was a wake-up call in South Korea. Prime Minister Chung said he was keen to strike a balance between the economy and preventing infection.
“I believe it is better to minimize restrictions. But we have to keep in mind that if we fail to contain Covid-19 we will fail to grow our economy as well. Yes, at the moment the fight against the coronavirus is a priority but it is not the only fight. “We are preparing to amend our social distancing measures in March. The focus will be to reduce the burden on those self-employed or small businesses that have been badly hit by the restrictions while asking each individual to be more responsible and carry out some restraint.”
It’s not clear what that will mean in practice, but currently there is a ban on more than four people gathering together. South Korea’s fight against the coronavirus has not been perfect, but it has saved lives. Just over 1,500 people have died from Covid-19 and there have been a total of around 87,000 infections in the past year. So was Mr Chung surprised when those in the West failed to follow this country’s lead?
“South Korea has learned about democracy and gained technology from advanced countries like Europe and the UK. “I would never have thought they would have suffered so much from Covid-19. South Korea was focused on the three principles of testing, tracking and tracing the virus and the three values of democracy, transparency and openness – we didn’t realize how well we were doing. “It was only later that we learned we were managing better than others around the world.”