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South Korea preps coronavirus vaccines after political scuffle over first shots

Sangmi Cha and Josh Smith
·2 min read

By Sangmi Cha and Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean politicians won't be the first in line when the county kicks off its coronavirus vaccination drive on Friday, despite calls from the opposition party for the president to roll up his sleeve and take a shot to reassure vaccine sceptics.

Leading political figures spent the week trading rhetorical shots over who should be the first to take a literal jab, but in the end, health authorities said widespread acceptance of vaccines in South Korea means they would stick to plans to vaccinate healthcare workers and other at-risk individuals first.

On Thursday, the first doses of AstraZeneca's coronavirus vaccine were distributed to clinics in preparation for the initial inoculations.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun decried the debate over whether President Moon Jae-in should be first up, writing on Facebook that "vaccination should not be an instrument of political strife."

On Thursday he pleaded for trust in government and called for active participation from the public.

"Reaching herd immunity is nothing more than an illusion if the people distrust the vaccines and avoid receiving the shots," Chung told a government meeting.

Government surveys have shown more than 90% of those eligible want to be vaccinated.

However, AstraZeneca's product faced scrutiny after health regulators decided not to offer it to people 65 and over until more efficacy data is available.

While there is no evidence of safety risk from the vaccine, some members of the conservative opposition party criticised Moon for not being the first to be inoculated as a way to reassure citizens.

Moon, along with other politicians from both sides, had said he would be willing to be the first vaccinated. His office later said the president would wait his turn, given the lack of major concerns about vaccinations among the public.

Last week former opposition party lawmaker Yoo Seong-min urged Moon on social media to take the shot first as a way to eliminate distrust.

A member of Moon's party fired back, arguing the head of state is not an experimental subject.

"This is a mockery and insult against a nation's leader," ruling party lawmaker Jung Chung-rae wrote on Facebook.

Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) director Jeong Eun-kyeong told a briefing on Wednesday it would be inappropriate to consider anyone getting a vaccine now as a subject in an experiment, given the proven results.

Preliminary study findings in Scotland, for example, show that country's vaccine drive appears to be markedly reducing the risk of hospitalisation for COVID-19, suggesting both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca shots are highly effective in preventing severe infections.

(Reporting by Sangmi Cha and Josh Smith; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)