Vaccines: In South Korea, the value of vaccines is built into the country’s economic DNA

Vaccines: In South Korea, the value of vaccines is built into the country's economic DNA
Vaccines: In South Korea, the value of vaccines is built into the country's economic DNA
  • South Korea has among the highest rates of vaccination in the world. Those high rates are partly credited with the country’s rapid economic growth over the past few decades.
  • Vaccines are widely accepted in South Korea, perhaps because it wasn’t always a high-income country.
  • The country is positioning itself to be 80 percent vaccine self-sufficient and is moving to ensure manufacturing facilities are in place to do just that. Those facilities should make distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine that much easier and faster.

When Daegu, South Korea’s third largest city, experienced its first outbreak of COVID-19 in February, the country responded quickly and got the upper hand on the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. South Korea had something of a leg up from its experience battling Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2015. It launched a blitzkrieg program of testing that, by April, had helped bring the numbers of new daily cases down to the single digits.

Dealing with that first outbreak was a starting response to a pandemic that was only beginning and will likely continue to ebb and flow for months or longer at least until treatments are developed, a critical mass of people build widespread immunity to the virus or a vaccine hits markets around the world.

Like many governments, Seoul is now scrambling to curb a recent second-wave outbreak that surfaced  in nightclubs in Seoul’s Itaewon neighbourhood. This second wave has underlined the importance of a vaccine to truly deal with COVID-19 and allow the world to return to some kind of normalcy.

And vaccines for COVID-19 are being developed around the world at record speed. If a vaccine does become available towards the end of this year, it will prove to be the fastest vaccine development effort in history. The speed of development has led to something of a resurgence in vaccine hesitancy around the world.

Not so in South Korea, a country with one of the strongest vaccination programs in the world. In fact, the vaccination program has been credited as one of the pillars that supported the country’s emergence into the small club of developed nations.

The high rates of acceptance and vaccination throughout the country may be partly attributed to the fact that Korea wasn’t always a high-income country, Jerome Kim, Director of the International Vaccine Institute, told Anticentric.

After World War II and in the wake of a 35-year occupation by Japan and a three-year civil war that killed and estimated 3 million people and led to the split between north and south along the 38th parallel, South Korea was one of the largest recipients of foreign aid in the world.

In the decades that followed, the country went through a period of dramatic economic development, often referred to as the miracle of the Han river. Strong governmental support for vaccines evolved alongside this rapid economic development and “translated into very high rates of vaccination and acceptance by the population,” said Kim.

Korea’s strong vaccination system puts the country in a good position to benefit from the development of a COVID-19 vaccine.

For example, the World Health Organisation says that more than 97 percent of 1-year olds are inoculated with the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV3), the Haemophilus influenzae type B vaccine (Hib3) and the measles-containing-vaccine second-dose (MCV2). By comparison, the rate of vaccination in the US for the PCV vaccine among children between 19 and 35 months is a little more than 82 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention while only 81 percent receive the Hib vaccine. Close to 92 percent of children in the U.S. get are vaccinated against measles.

The high rate of early vaccination in South Korea is the result of an effective National Immunization Program launched in 2009. The program ensures 17 free vaccines are provided to children born since 2006 at health care centres throughout the country.

Even if vaccine hesitant people around the world are skeptical of a quickly developed vaccine, Kim believes that the country’s strong vaccination program could allow a COVID-19 vaccine to be ‘very accepted’ given the level of acceptance of other vaccines. And, perhaps, that could make it easier for South Korea to come out of the pandemic faster than other countries.

And South Korea is also moving forward quickly with efforts to develop a vaccine on home soil.

Korea stands to benefit from a “vibrant and capable manufacturing capability,”Kim said.

A flu outbreak in 2009 jolted the government, then led by Myung Bak Lee, to recognise the importance of vaccine security. The administration committed to making Korea 80 percent self-sufficient in vaccines by 2025.

This goal has not yet been achieved but pilot manufacturing facilities are being built and should be up and running by the end of 2021.

So, even if a vaccine for COVID-19 is not developed in South Korea itself, the developer could transfer the ability to make it and the country should have the capacity to manufacture it and distribute it widely.

Kim noted that even countries like Germany doesn’t have its own vaccine manufacturer, it can make vaccines under contract, but it doesn’t have a Green Cross or an SK Bio, two of the country’s large vaccine makers.

Currently, SK Bioscience and Sumagen are in the animal testing phase for their own vaccine candidates and hope to start human clinical trials shortly. Genexine and GeneOne Life Science are also in the middle of developing candidates.