Government’s efforts to contain the coronavirus have now become entangled in a conflict with some religious groups.
At least 13 South Koreans have died after receiving flu shots in recent days, according to official and local media reports, fuelling doubts about vaccine safety even as authorities rule out a link and as global efforts to find a vaccine against COVID-19 intensify.
Health authorities said on Wednesday there were no plans to suspend the programme to vaccinate approximately 19 million people for free after a preliminary investigation into six deaths found no direct connection with the drug they had received.
“The number of deaths has increased, but our team sees low possibility that the deaths resulted from the shots,” Jeong Eun-kyeong, director of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA), told parliament.
South Korea ordered 20 percent more flu vaccines this year to avoid what it calls a “twindemic” of people with flu developing potential COVID-19 complications, and overburdening hospitals during the winter.
“I understand and regret that people are concerned about the vaccine,” Health Minister Park Neung-hoo said on Thursday, while confirming the free programme would continue.
“We’re looking into the causes but will again thoroughly examine the entire process in which various government agencies are involved, from production to distribution,” he added.
The deaths, including a 17-year-old boy and a man in his 70s, took place just a week after the resumption of the vaccination programme for teenagers and senior citizens on October 13.
No toxic substances had been found in the vaccines and at least five of the six people investigated had underlying conditions, officials said.
The inoculation programme was suspended for three weeks after it was discovered that some five million doses, which need to be refrigerated, had been exposed to room temperature while being transported to a medical facility.
South Korea’s vaccines come from a variety of sources.
Manufacturers include local drug makers GC Pharma, SK Bioscience and Il-Yang Pharmaceutical Co, along with France’s Sanofi and Britain’s GlaxoSmithKline. Distributors include LG Chem and Boryung Biopharma, a unit of Boryung Pharm.
GC Pharma, LG Chem, SK Bioscience and Boryung declined to comment. Il-Yang Pharmaceutical, Sanofi and GSK could not immediately be reached for comment.
South Korea has extended its seasonal vaccine programme this year to avoid any potential complications as a result of COVID-19 complications.
The country has reported more than 25,500 cases of the coronavirus, keeping the disease in check through a robust contact-tracing and testing regime and physical-distancing measures, as the world rushes to develop an effective vaccine against the disease.
Officials said 8.3 million people have been inoculated with the free flu vaccine since it resumed on October 13, with about 350 cases of adverse reactions reported.
It is also offering a paid vaccine programme which, combined with the free programme, aims to ensure about 30 million of the country’s 52-million population are inoculated. Under the paid programme, the purchaser can select the vaccine provider from a larger pool of manufacturers.
Kim Myung-suk, 65, who is eligible for a free vaccine, was among a growing number of people opting to pay.
“Though just a few people died so far, the number is growing and that makes me uneasy,” she told Reuters news agency in Seoul. “So I’m getting a shot somewhere else and will pay for it.”
The highest number of deaths linked to the seasonal flu vaccination was six in 2005, according to the Yonhap news agency. Officials have said it is difficult to make comparisons to previous years because of the greater numbers of people taking the vaccine this year.