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Government struggles to handle unused coronavirus vaccines

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Vials of COVID-19 vaccines ― Moderna, AstraZeneca, Pfizer - BioNtech, Johnson & Johnson, and Sputnik V ― are seen in this photo taken May 2, 2021. Reuters-Yonhap
Vials of COVID-19 vaccines ― Moderna, AstraZeneca, Pfizer - BioNtech, Johnson & Johnson, and Sputnik V ― are seen in this photo taken May 2, 2021. Reuters-Yonhap

By Lee Hae-rin

The government is scrambling to handle a stockpile of unused coronavirus vaccine surpluses that will soon expire and go to waste.

As of July 6, the national rate of vaccine wastage due to expiration reached 3.6 percent, according to a report released by National Assembly Budget Office on Thursday. That percentage equates to 5.29 million out of 145.84 million total vaccine doses.

The discarded vaccines include 260,000 doses of AstraZeneca (1.2 percent), 1.58 million of Pfizer (1.8 percent), 1.97 million of Moderna (6.3 percent), 50,000 of the Johnson & Johnson (1.5 percent) and 1.43 million of Novavax (61.4 percent).

Novavax is made with a more traditional vaccine technology that contains the spike protein of the coronavirus itself, but as a nanoparticle, and stimulates the immune system to produce antibodies to block the virus. It was expected to boost the inoculation rate among the unvaccinated who refuse to get a jab of the other vaccines out of fear of side effects.

However, when Novavax vaccines arrived here in February, the country's vaccine demand was starting to wane, 86 percent of Koreans had already received two shots and 56 percent had received the first booster. The government lifted the vaccine pass requirement to enter multi-use facilities that same month. The vaccine now has the highest wastage ratio.

Most of these doses were discarded as they expired in June, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency. The average vaccine expiration date is between 6 months and one year.

In response, the government is struggling to adjust the vaccine supply and prevent future wastage.

Last month, the government cancelled a deal to order 4 million additional doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and 12.65 million from COVAX, the global vaccine distribution platform. It called off a contract with Pfizer for the third quarter as well.

The report said 37.67 million more Novavax vaccines were to be sent here by the end of this year, but the government postponed the deal to next year.

There are over 15.04 million unused coronavirus vaccines in the country, as of Aug. 10.

The budget office recommended that the authorities donate the surplus to other countries. The country has been providing vaccines to countries, including Guatemala, Guyana and Mexico since June.

However, the authorities explained it is not easy to find countries to donate to because the international vaccine supply has gone up while its demand has gone down, as the less fatal Omicron variant has become dominant.

Several developed nations, including the United States, Canada and European countries, have also discarded billions of excess doses.

An additional 130 million doses are scheduled to arrive in the country by the end of this year. The government is in the process of evaluating the updated version of the Moderna vaccine that aims to protect against both the original coronavirus strain and the Omicron variant.

Currently, 86.8 percent of Korea's population has received the first shot, 86 percent have received the second, 64.5 percent has received the first booster and 12.9 percent has received the second booster. The government is scheduled to map out its further vaccine distribution and inoculation plan and announce it at the end of the month.

The Central Disease Control Headquarters said the country added 178,754 new infections Thursday, bringing the total number of infections to 21,861,296. The number of infections that came in from overseas hit a record since the outbreak, of 633.

Lee Hae-rin


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