Social affairs Korea tries getting to warp speed on Covid-19

Korea tries getting to warp speed on Covid-19
Democratic Party Chairman Lee Nak-yon during a meeting on Covid-19 held at the National Assembly in Seoul on Tuesday. [NEWS1]
Democratic Party Chairman Lee Nak-yon during a meeting on Covid-19 held at the National Assembly in Seoul on Tuesday. [NEWS1]
 
Democratic Party Chairman Lee Nak-yon said Tuesday Korea may have vaccination and treatment programs for Covid-19 running as early as next month.
 
“With any luck, Korea may be able to have a well-running and complete system of testing, treating and preventing Covid-19 infections within the next month or two,” Lee said in a meeting with pharmaceutical companies at the National Assembly in Seoul.
 
The meeting was among lawmakers and three pharmaceutical companies developing medicines to treat Covid-19: Celltrion, Daewoong Pharmaceutical and GC Pharma.
 
“We’ve developed a new drug to keep the virus causing Covid-19 from attacking the respiratory system of the patients,” said Kwon Ki-seong, head of the research and development department of Celltrion, during the meeting. “Empirical data has shown that the drug is effective in holding the virus at bay and keeping the patient from developing severe respiratory conditions. We’re hoping to get it approved by the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety within the month.”
 
Daewoong Pharmaceutical said it is testing a new drug that will help keep the virus from entering healthy cells.
 
“Similar to the medicine used against flu viruses like Tamiflu, the new drug also is administered orally,” said Park Hyun-jin, head of the development department of Daewoong. “Our empirical data will be completed by March or April.”
 
GC Pharma has been working on a treatment based on antibodies found in the plasma of patients who survived Covid-19 infections. It said that once the treatment is approved by the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, it will be made available in hospitals, possibly as early as April.
 
Free vaccinations could start in Korea from as early as next month. President Moon Jae-in promised free vaccines against Covid-19 for the whole country in a New Year address on Monday, stating they will be available starting in February.
 
Korea’s health authority on Covid-19, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA), announced earlier this month a goal of reaching herd immunity against Covid-19 infections in Korea by having some 60 to 70 percent of the population vaccinated by November.
 
The Korean government has made Covid-19 vaccine deals with AstraZeneca, Moderna, Pfizer and BioNTech to cover at least 56 million people, more than its national population.
 
But it may be too early to celebrate, according to local experts on infectious diseases.
 
“Firstly, it’s not clear yet if the government will indeed be able to procure enough vaccines for some 35 million people [70 percent of the total population of Korea] within the year, and secondly, they don’t know yet if those 35 million people would be happy to take these vaccines,” said Jung Ki-suck, a professor of pulmonary, allergy and critical care medicine at Hallym University College of Medicine and former head of the KDCA.
 
“On top of that, we cannot be sure yet that the people who are vaccinated in, say, February or March, will still be immune in November,” he said. “We have yet to find out if people need to be vaccinated every year, like they do with flu shots.”
 
Jung added that there is also the possibility of vaccination programs giving rise to stronger variants of the virus.
 
“Once the vaccination programs start, the weaker versions of the virus will die out, leaving the strong ones, and we may see some of them mutate,” he said.
 
World Health Organization’s chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan announced Monday that herd immunity within 2021 would be difficult because it would be impossible to procure vaccines for most populations around the world within the year.
 
"We are not going to achieve any levels of population immunity or herd immunity in 2021," Swaminathan said during a virtual press briefing on Monday, adding that vaccination programs being implemented across a few nations will not lead to global herd immunity.
 
“There are some 200 countries and regions infected with the virus causing Covid-19 infections and only a few of them have rolled out vaccination programs,” said Kim Dong-hyun, a professor of epidemiology and disease prevention at Hallym University College of Medicine. “Having just some countries with vaccination programs will not solve the pandemic.”
 
BY SONG SEUNG-HWAN, YI WOO-LIM, ESTHER CHUNG   [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]
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