|Seats are empty at a public vaccination center in Gwangju, Monday, following the health authorities' earlier decision to halt temporarily giving first shots of the Pfizer anti-COVID-19 vaccine in order to carry out inoculations for those scheduled for second shots. Yonhap|
By Lee Hyo-jin
The government's vaccination plan is hitting a snag due to an imbalance between supply and demand, adding uncertainty to its goal of fully vaccinating 12 million people in the first half of the year.
According to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA), around 3.39 million people have received at least one dose of a vaccine as of Sunday, among which 236,468 have been fully vaccinated with two.
But rising demand for second shots of the two-dose regimen vaccines is causing a supply-demand imbalance, leading to the temporary suspension of initial shots.
The health authorities announced Friday that they would stop giving first shots of the Pfizer vaccine until mid-May, in order to inoculate those scheduled for their second doses.
Accordingly, the KDCA requested local governments to refrain from making new appointments for first shots. Since its April 1 rollout, the Pfizer vaccine is currently being administered to the elderly population aged over 75.
As the vaccine requires a three-week interval between the two doses, many of the elderly who received their initial shots have their second ones scheduled for May.
But of the total 2.11 million doses obtained so far, only 529,000 remain as of Monday, according to the KDCA.
The use of AstraZeneca's vaccine faces a similar setback.
From the approximately 2 million doses delivered to the country so far, only about 345,000 doses, or less than 10 percent, are left.
The health authorities said that the remaining amount can be stretched to 380,000 shots using domestically developed low dead space syringes, which maximize the number of doses from a vial by reducing the space between the needle and plunger.
But considering the current vaccination speed of 200,000 to 400,000 people per day, the remaining supply is likely to run out shortly. As the planned arrival of the next batch of vaccines is scheduled for mid-May, the country may need to also limit offering second shots.
Kim Woo-joo, an infectious disease specialist at Korea University Guro Hospital, said that the government should make adjustments to its "unrealistic" goal of fully vaccinating 12 million people in the first half of the year, and focus on vaccinating all of the elderly population instead.
"Rapidly expanding inoculations to various occupational and age groups without considering the unstable supply has resulted in an imbalance of supply and demand. The government should have targeted the elderly population first, and then moved on to other groups," Kim told The Korea Times.
He also stressed that the vaccination of those needing a second dose only must not be delayed. "The first shot gears up the antibody of the recipient, and then the timely second dose accelerates the immune system. If recipients fail to get their second doses in time, it will leave them highly vulnerable to new coronavirus variants," he explained.
Regarding such concerns, President Moon Jae-in reiterated that the vaccination rollout was running smoothly under the government's plan to distribute the vaccines effectively.
"In May, doses of Pfizer vaccine will be stably supplied to Korea on a weekly basis, and the AstraZeneca vaccine will be delivered in larger quantities ahead of schedule," he said at an emergency meeting on coronavirus response measures, Monday.
The health authorities also sought to reassure people that the current halt in giving first shots of the Pfizer vaccine was "temporary" and they will resume sending out appointments from the third week of May.
In a briefing later in the day, the Ministry of Health and Welfare said about 13 million people, an increase from its initial goal of 12 million, would be vaccinated in the first half of the year as larger quantities of vaccines are set to be delivered throughout May and July.
"Beginning May 14, 7.23 million doses from AstraZeneca will be delivered by the first week of June. These will be used for giving second shots from mid-May, and first shots from late-May," Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol said.
He added that the country is expecting to receive additional batches from the COVAX facility ― 1.67 million doses of AstraZeneca and 297,000 of Pfizer.