South Korea vaccination surge adds impetus to Asia push

South Korea is on track to inoculate three-quarters of its 52m people against Covid-19 over the next three months as the vaccine rollouts of east Asian governments gather momentum after early delays.

Health officials in Seoul unveiled plans on Thursday to expand its vaccination programme to the general public after inoculating 13m people, one-quarter of the population, two weeks ahead of schedule.

The surge in vaccinations comes after Asian countries, which outperformed Europe and the US in their initial responses to the coronavirus pandemic, fell behind their western counterparts this year in securing and delivering jabs.

East Asia’s struggles were attributed to a lack of local Covid vaccine manufacturers as well as inertia on the part of policymakers after their early success suppressing the virus.

A strong rebound in export growth and signs of inflationary pressures have masked weaker domestic recoveries across the region amid continued social distancing and restrictions on travel, tourism and mass events.

Société Générale analysts described China’s lack of acceleration in domestic consumption in particular as “a big concern”, with the country’s retail and services sectors still underperforming and the export recovery set to moderate.

Seoul is in talks with other governments about quickly loosening travel restrictions as the vaccination drive gathers pace.

“The slump in the service sector — travel, retail, restaurant and hotels — makes it difficult to create a positive cycle for the economy, despite strong exports,” said Park Chong-hoon, head of research at Standard Chartered in Seoul.

South Korea will also allow citizens to be vaccinated with different jabs as part of a plan to navigate supply shortages and reach its target of herd immunity by November. That means about 760,000 people, including healthcare workers who initially received the Oxford/AstraZeneca jabs, can receive their second dose with a BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine.

“Things seem to be going as well as planned by the government, with little public resistance against vaccinations,” said Kim Tak, a professor of infectious disease at Soon Chun Hyang University Hospital.

South Korea’s vaccination rate has outpaced that of neighbouring Japan despite Tokyo’s rush to inoculate citizens ahead of the Olympic Games in July. While both countries had barely started their campaigns in April, cumulative doses per 100 people in South Korea have jumped to more than 30 in recent days, compared with just over 20 in Japan.

China, which also suffered initial delays, has administered more than 900m doses to its population of 1.4bn.

Jeong Eun-kyeoung, head of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, said 80m doses would arrive in South Korea in the third quarter of the year, including 10m doses in July.

“There is hope for returning to ordinary life . . . But we cannot stop the community spread of the virus with the current vaccination rate,” Jeong said.

To encourage vaccination, South Korea is introducing incentives such as allowing vaccinated people to go maskless outdoors and to be exempt from restrictions of gatherings of more than four people. Inoculation locations are also being expanded to companies with their own medical facilities.

Local confidence has been buoyed by a series of commercial deals between South Korean biopharmaceutical groups and leading foreign vaccine developers.

SK Bioscience is contracted to produce AstraZeneca jabs for both domestic use and export. It also signed a licence agreement with Novavax to produce 40m doses for South Korea as well as a contract manufacturing deal for global supply.

Samsung Biologics, the country’s biggest pharmaceutical contract manufacturer, plans to start Moderna vaccine production in the second half of the year for South Korea and the global market, excluding the US. Another biotech, GL Rapha, will produce doses of Russia’s Sputnik V jab for global use.

Additional reporting by Sherry Fei Ju in Beijing

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