With its president visiting the White House on Friday, South Korea is expected to suggest an exchange of millions of doses on a one-for-one basis: The U.S. provides vaccinations now from its growing pile of unused shots. South Korea—with less than 3% of the population fully vaccinated—will send its supply to the U.S. in the months ahead.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, in Washington for a four-day visit that ends Saturday, will have semiconductors and North Korea on the agenda for his summit with President Biden.
The priority Mr. Moon is putting on the Covid-19 vaccine highlights how even wealthy countries with rollout blueprints find themselves confounded by a global supply backlog—and look at the U.S.’s massive pile as a potential solution.
Nearly 90% of the world’s Covid-19 vaccines to date have been administered in wealthy countries, according to the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit organization that works on humanitarian crises. Production setbacks in India and by Pfizer Inc. in Europe have slowed critical distribution plans to poorer countries.
Affluent countries such as South Korea have also been left behind.
Canada preordered five times the vaccines needed for its population but has fully vaccinated about 4% of its people, according to Our World in Data figures. New Zealand and Japan, which have purchased enough shots for their entire populations, have fully vaccinated just 3% and 1.9% of their citizens, respectively.
By contrast, about 30% of the U.K. population are fully vaccinated as are 37% in the U.S., according to Our World in Data.
The only option for wealthier countries lacking vaccines—absent a swap deal such as the one South Korea is proposing—might be to wait for supply to increase and delayed orders to arrive, according to public-health experts.
“President Biden articulated a moral responsibility but also a national-security argument that if the pandemic continues to rage in other countries, we won’t be safe,” said Chris Beyrer, a professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins.
“If we don’t have large numbers of people immunized globally, the virus will generate variants that undermine the current generation of vaccines,” he added.
This week Mr. Biden said the U.S. would ship to other countries some 20 million doses of vaccines produced by Moderna Inc., Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson. The Biden administration has yet to specify which countries will be the recipients.
The pledge comes on top of 60 million doses of the vaccine from AstraZeneca PLC, which has yet to be authorized for U.S. use. The Biden administration has earlier committed a combined four million AstraZeneca doses to Canada and Mexico.
With the rollouts now extending to teenagers and vaccine demand on the decline, the U.S. could have 300 million excess doses by the end of July, according to an April report by the Duke Global Health Innovation Center.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday she didn’t expect that the administration will have completed its distribution plans by the time Mr. Moon visits the White House.
“We certainly expect that the leaders will discuss ways the United States can support South Korea in its fight against Covid-19 as well as how we can work together to combat the pandemic around the world,” she said.
At least on paper, South Korea shouldn’t have a Covid-19 vaccine problem.
South Korea began bulk purchases of shots last fall, eventually committing to buy enough doses to vaccinate all of its citizens fully, twice. Some 2.9% of South Koreans are fully vaccinated, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency. That is 1/13th the share in the U.S.
In the buildup to Mr. Moon’s trip, South Korean officials have emphasized the two countries’ alliance.
South Korea sent face masks and testing kits last spring when the coronavirus first began spreading across the U.S., and now the roles have reversed with vaccines, Seoul’s foreign minister, Chung Eui-yong, said last month.
“We’re in talks with the U.S. on the basis we help each other when in need,” Mr. Chung said.
Mr. Moon is likely to press another solution to the vaccine backlog: offering to boost production by South Korea’s biopharma manufacturers, if intellectual- property protections of the Covid-19 vaccines are waived.
Mr. Biden has embraced supporting a waiver that could dramatically boost global supply. The European Union and drugmakers prefer increasing production at existing facilities and asking richer countries to export more of their own supply.
South Korea has the world’s second-largest biomedicine production capacity following the U.S., according to BDO, a professional services network. If U.S. vaccine makers grant more licensing deals to South Korea, the government in Seoul has promised to use its production capacity to boost supplies at home and abroad.
“Many countries thought securing enough vaccines to cover their population would be sufficient, but the goal is shifting to achieving global herd immunity by resolving the supply issue,” said Kim Dong-hyun, head of the Korean Society of Epidemiology and a government adviser.
This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.
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