Record Covid Cases in One of Asia’s Most Vaccinated Places Shows Urgency of Boosters

by BLOOMBERG / pic by AFP

SOUTH Korea is in the midst of a Covid-19 surge, despite being one of the most vaccinated places in Asia.

The country, lauded throughout the pandemic for its sophisticated approach to testing and contact tracing, saw a record number of new infections this week, with 857 people seriously ill Thursday, also a fresh high.

While more than 80% of Korea’s population are fully inoculated, new virus cases are climbing rather than diminishing, topping 7,000 for a second day.

Government officials put the increase at least partially down to waning immunity, with the first round of vaccines doled out in February, initially to front-line medical workers and then to older people. They’re pleading for public cooperation on third shots, and have brought forward timelines for booster eligibility.

“Please, please get a booster dose, especially those 60 and older, for the sake of your health and the safety of society,” senior health ministry official Park Hyang said during a Covid-19 briefing this week.

Korea’s experience has been mirrored in other highly vaccinated parts of the world, especially those that moved early on shots.

Israel contained a recent virus wave through a widespread rollout of boosters, with more than 70% of those over 50 having received a third dose as of the end of November. Singapore initially saw cases surge as it eased away from a zero-tolerance, closed-border approach to the virus, despite one of the highest vaccine rates globally at more than 85%. It’s also doubling down on boosters, with nearly one-in-four people having received a third dose. Infections have since fallen to a two-month low.

For Korea, pushing boosters is a more favorable course of action than imposing stricter social distancing measures that risk hitting the economy, especially small mom-and-pop businesses and restaurants.

Omicron Factor

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, the nation’s version of the CDC, reported Thursday. Last month the body narrowed the interval between second and third shots to four months from six months, and stepped up supplies of booster inoculations.

Officials also see boosters as key to helping them fight the emergence of the omicron variant in South Korea, which has confirmed 60 cases since late last month when a couple who visited Nigeria tested positive for the variant.

Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE said Wednesday that initial lab studies show a third dose of their mRNA vaccine will likely be needed to ensure high levels of protection from their shot against omicron.

“The rising confirmed cases despite the 80% of population being fully vaccinated means we need to get a booster,” said Jung Ki Suck, a medical school professor at Hallym University and former KDCA director. The current surge “is really frustrating to experts like me, as it makes me think ‘when will this really end?’”