The sunrise is seen at Incheon Airport on Thursday. Hopes for a return to normalcy are echoed around the world upon the New Year after a year of an unprecedented health disaster and devastating disruptions across societies and economies. (Yonhap)
Much of 2021 will be a repeat of 2020. But as vaccines enter the scene, experts say some degree of normalcy might begin to return by the year’s end.
Infectious disease expert Dr. Kim Woo-joo of Korea University Medical Center said the second year of the pandemic will be characterized by the “vaccine divide” at a global level.
“You might need to be vaccinated if you want to travel this year, for instance,” he said. As of Thursday, around 25 countries have reported their first inoculations against COVID-19.
He said South Korea should aim to “keep pace with its neighbors so that cross-border exchanges can resume at around the same time.” The Summer Olympics in Tokyo, he said, may become a showcase for how successful each government has been in inoculating its people.
Once Korea receives its share of vaccines, the rollout could proceed faster than in other parts of the world because of its vaccine acceptance among the public, he said. According to a recent poll by Gallup Korea, 87 percent of Koreans said they were willing to get the jabs when they become available here.
How the next phase of the pandemic might play out “depends on the government’s ability to secure enough vaccines in time,” said Dr. Jun Byung-yool, who was the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s director from 2011 to 2013.
“It is the government’s responsibility to do everything in its power to ensure vaccinations can begin as promptly as possible,” he said, adding that failing to do so would be “one of the gravest errors the government can make in a pandemic.”
Key details are missing from the vaccine announcements so far, making it difficult to predict how far away Korea might be from the goal of herd immunity, according to public health policy expert Dr. Jung Jae-hun of Gachon University.
The very first doses of COVID-19 vaccine will reach Korea in February, the presidential office said Tuesday. Still, it’s unclear exactly how many people will be covered in each stage of distribution.
“We have a tentative date for when the vaccinations will kick off. But what really matters is when we will have sufficient doses to meet the immunization targets,” he said.
“For all we know, we may only have a small, symbolic amount brought in in February, with subsequent supplies put off until later. It might take several months before we have access to quantities necessary to vaccinate a meaningful proportion of the Korean population.”
The vaccines will be delivered in phases, prioritizing essential workers and people at risk. The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency plans to complete vaccination of priority groups by November.
And until there is widespread immunity, social distancing and mask-wearing will likely remain in place, said respiratory disease specialist Dr. Chun Eun-mi of Ewha Womans University Medical Center. During this period, intermittent restrictions of varying intensity may be unavoidable.
“To draw sustained compliance with the public health measures for another year and possibly longer, we need more funding to pay people to stay home and businesses to stay closed -- which were lacking in our response thus far,” she said.
Another possible strategy to offset the pandemic fatigue is clearer communication regarding the vaccination timeline.
“The government should give concrete dates on the vaccination scheme and let people know for how much longer they will have to endure social distancing,” she said.
Dr. Jung Ki-suck, who led the KCDC from 2016 to 2017, predicts an exit from the pandemic may not necessarily entail the disease going away.
“Eradication can be defined in several different ways. With COVID-19, the virus is not likely to become extinct, but rather its threat may become reduced to more manageable levels,” he said.
Preventive medicine professor Dr. Choi Jae-wook of Korea University said there was still potential for Korea to speed up the process after the vaccines are shipped here.
“Getting the hard-earned vaccines into people’s arms in the most efficient ways will require a lot of planning in advance,” he said. Among those considerations are how to distribute the supplies across the country, and where and how the vaccination services will take place.
The latest clearance for AstraZeneca’s vaccine by the UK regulatory authorities also offer hope of advancing the clock, according to virologist Dr. Paik Soon-young of the Catholic University of Korea.
“In the most auspicious scenario, we can start AstraZeneca inoculation in February and then Janssen in April or May,” he said.
Korea’s allotment of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which can be manufactured locally, will start rolling out in Korea in about two months. Janssen’s is to be doled out in the following months. Pfizer’s is slated for fall, with the deal with Moderna still being finalized.
Paik added there were concerns supply issues or other unforeseen hurdles may arise and interfere with the plans.
The emergence of new variants should be taken seriously, but there is no cause for panic, according to viral immunologist Dr. Shin Eui-cheol of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.
“The mutant strain first identified in the UK is reported to be more transmissible. There is no evidence yet to suggest it is associated with worse outcomes,” he said.
“All viruses mutate. It’s what they do,” he said. But only a tiny fraction change in a way that can be considered “immunologically and medically significant.”
He said based on the data so far, that does not appear to be the case with the variant discovered by the UK scientists. “The vaccines should still work against it,” he said.
Dr. Rhee Chul-woo, a research scientist at the International Vaccine Institute, said in an email response that the mutations include “changes to the part of virus that plays an important role for the vaccine to be effective (i.e., receptor binding domain of spike protein).”
The “spike” protein is how the virus gains entry into human cells, he explained.
“The good news is emergency use authorized vaccine platforms such as mRNA vaccines can be recalibrated for new variant much quicker, if needed.”
Medical laboratory scientist Dr. Lee Hyuk-min of Severance Hospital said the emergence of new variants signaled a need for boosting surveillance.
“Korea has done around 1,640 genomic sequencing tests to date. To track and monitor new variants more effectively, we should be doing more,” he said. He added that the variant will still be picked up by the current tests.
On the persistent, most pressing question of when things will return to normal, most projections fell sometime in the latter half of the year. All of the experts stressed there were too many uncertainties at play, and that the pandemic could take different trajectories.
“If everything works out well, Korea could approach herd immunity by winter 2021,” said Jung of Gachon University.
“Given the vaccination schedule, we may be able to begin to wean off of social distancing before the year is over, I can give you that,” said KAIST’s Shin.
Once vaccination efforts are underway, the situation will gradually improve, even before herd immunity is achieved, according to Choi of Korea University.
“When we are at a point where about 20 to 30 percent of the population is vaccinated, infection rates will probably start to fall,” he said.
By Kim Arin (email@example.com)