Boosters Brought Forward as Korea Struggles With Record Covid Surge
(Bloomberg) -- South Korea brought forward the timing for Covid-19 booster shots to just three months after the second dose, as one of Asia’s most-vaccinated countries grapples with its worst ever virus surge.
Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum said Friday that the booster gap is being shortened on “expert advice” and the move is warranted to “reverse the crisis that our community is facing.”
Korea has been steadily bringing forward timelines for booster eligibility, from the original six months cut to five and then four months for the elderly. The prevailing advice and practice in most countries has been to wait six months to give booster doses.
Record daily case increases and the emergence of the omicron variant -- there have been 63 confirmed cases in Korea -- is fueling the urgency to boost, with ICU capacity nearing a level where the government may have to impose tighter social distancing measures. Some 81% of the population has had two shots, one of the highest rates in the region, while just 10% have received third, or booster, doses.
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Korea has been recording more than 7,000 new Covid cases a day, and the ranks of the critically ill have also been rising. Government officials put the increase at least partially on waning immunity from the vaccines as the first round of shots began in earnest in March with front-line medical workers and then older people.
About 85% of seriously ill Covid patients right now are over 60 -- and half of them are fully vaccinated -- the Korea Disease Control & Prevention Agency reported Thursday.
“Early vaccination is a top priority,” Prime Minister Kim said Friday, just before the country reported 7,022 new cases, up from around 5,000 a week ago. “I urge people to receive booster shots.”
Korea has mostly relied on the vaccine from Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE in its Covid inoculation rollout, with some, mostly military, receiving the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Those people have been advised to get a booster after two months.
Other highly vaccinated places have also seen virus resurgences, with both Israel and Singapore, where two-dose rates are over 60%, appearing to beat back recent waves by doubling down on boosters. More than 70% of Israelis over 50 had received a third dose as of end-November, while in Singapore nearly one-in-four people have been boosted, the city-state’s Health Minister Ong Ye Kung told Bloomberg News last month.
There are preliminary signs boosters may be key to warding off omicron, which appears to be more contagious than previous virus strains. Pfizer and BioNTech said Wednesday that initial lab studies show a third dose of their mRNA vaccine -- which has been deployed widely, particularly in the developed world -- will likely be needed to ensure high levels of protection from their shot against the variant.
It’s very clear that the Pfizer-BioNTech shot “should be a three-dose vaccine” to deal with omicron, BioNTech Chief Executive Officer Ugur Sahin said on a conference call this week. It may make sense to give boosters even sooner than now recommended, as early as three months after the first two doses, he said.
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