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Doubts raised over achieving herd immunity against COVID-19 by November

A medical staffer takes part in a training for COVID-19 vaccinationat a nursing home in Gwangju, Tuesday, ahead of the inoculation scheduled to start on Friday. Yonhap
A medical staffer takes part in a training for COVID-19 vaccinationat a nursing home in Gwangju, Tuesday, ahead of the inoculation scheduled to start on Friday. Yonhap

By Lee Hyo-jin

The government's rollout of its COVID-19 vaccination program is just around the corner with the goal of achieving herd immunity in Korea by November. But health experts say that this target may not be so easy to reach as the plan could be affected by several variables.

Beginning with the first inoculations Friday of patients and healthcare workers aged under 65 at nursing homes, the administration plans to vaccinate 70 percent of the population by September in order to achieve the immunity by the set date.

But a recent report by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), a sister company of The Economist, predicted that Korea's widespread vaccination coverage of 70 percent of adults will only be possible by mid-2022.

Criteria taken into account for the forecast included supply and production constraints, vaccine hesitancy, population size, and the availability of healthcare workers.

"It is tricky to stably manage vaccine supply schedules in the current situation when demand exceeds supply worldwide, but if we are able to thoroughly carry out the plan, it will be possible to form herd immunity by November," said Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) Commissioner Jeong Eun-kyung in a briefing Monday when asked about the prediction from EIU.

But she listed three variables ― vaccination rates, the supply schedule, and the emergence of new variants ― as risk factors in reaching the goal.

Medical staff at a public health center in Gwangju check a box which will be used to carry vaccines, during a vaccination drill. Feb. 19. Yonhap
Medical staff at a public health center in Gwangju check a box which will be used to carry vaccines, during a vaccination drill. Feb. 19. Yonhap

Meanwhile, some health experts have pointed out that the 70 percent threshold set by the government is insufficient to achieve herd immunity.

Jung Jae-hun, a professor of preventive medicine at Gachon University, said that population immunity can only be established when at least 90 percent of the population has been inoculated with highly effective vaccines.

He said the number of persons to whom an infected individual may transmit the virus, which is currently 1.12 as of Tuesday, could grow to five considering new variants.

"In this case, the level of herd immunity that our society needs is at least 80 percent. And this is achievable only when 90 percent of the people across the country are administered with vaccines with 90 percent efficacy," he explained.

Another variable that may affect the country's vaccination plans is public concern over the safety and efficacy of the vaccines, as this can lower the inoculation rate.

A recent poll of 1,020 adults conducted by the Korea Society Opinion Institute showed that 45 percent were willing to get the vaccine as soon as their turn comes. Another 45 percent said they would watch the situation before getting the jab, while some 5 percent said they would not get vaccinated.

In addition, possible collective action by doctors against planned medical license regulation changes may lead to a lack of medical manpower to administer the vaccines, causing a major setback to the plan.

The Korean Medical Association (KMA), representing around 130,000 doctors, threatened Sunday to stage a strike if a revision bill to the Medical Practices Act revoking the licenses of doctors convicted of serious crimes was passed by the National Assembly.

The health ministry warned of stern measures against such action and asked medical professionals for support in successfully carrying out the nationwide vaccination program.


이효진 lhj@koreatimes.co.kr


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