This special meeting on epidemic prevention and control has been urgently convened to closely assess the current state of vaccine procurement, inoculations and disease fighting measures as well as to enhance the level of government-wide responses.
The recent spread of COVID-19 around the world is unusual, and it is alarming as the number of newly confirmed cases – which seemed to be dwindling – is increasing sharply again, even as the number of vaccinations has risen. Korea is also faced with growing concerns over a possible fourth wave of COVID-19 infections; our daily confirmed cases, which had stayed within the 400 range for some time, have now surged to over 600. The percentage of confirmed cases for whom the source of infection is unknown has steeply increased. While the upward trend in the Seoul metropolitan area still continues, percentages for patients in other regions have grown as well. All of this points to signs of a nationwide spread.
However, the current situation does have a silver lining, as the all-important number of deaths and the percentage of severely-ill patients are markedly decreasing. This is because the percentage of confirmed cases among those at nursing facilities, the elderly and other high-risk groups has fallen sharply. What’s making all of this possible is identifying patients early on through proactive, pre-emptive testing at high-risk facilities; securing a sufficient number of hospital beds; and treating patients in a timely manner. What’s more, vaccinations have begun to generate the expected effects. In addition, a locally developed antibody treatment has been proven effective in lowering mortality rates by preventing mild symptoms from turning severe. Such positive developments are distinctively different from what occurred when the third wave started at the end of last year, and they can also be attributed to Korea’s response to COVID-19.
However, for now, stopping the spread of COVID-19 has become imperative. We are in a precarious situation where letting down our guard even slightly could lead to an explosive wave. Even though we are running a pan-government, all-out response system to curb the spread of COVID-19, I urge everyone to stay more alert as it is difficult to reverse the situation while keeping in mind the impact on people’s lives and the economy. If we lose ground here, we probably cannot help but raise social distancing levels at the expense of people’s livelihoods and the economy.
To stabilize the current epidemic prevention and control situation, what matters the most is finding the cases of hidden infections which are apparently widespread. I urge you to fully utilize our ability to test 500,000 people per day in order to maximize the number tested in cooperation with local governments. In addition, pre-emptive testing should be conducted more actively. As you expand pre-emptive testing at the facilities and regions where it is needed most, I ask you to actively look for ways to reorganize the testing system and introduce various other testing methods so those with no or mild symptoms will easily use them. If you utilize new methods as supplements prior to precise testing – while fully keeping in mind that they may prove less accurate and sensitive than the gene amplification tests most widely used now – they can help more quickly and easily identify those who show no symptoms and thus are not prompted to get tested.
Meanwhile, just properly following the current epidemic prevention guidelines has the same effect as raising their level. We have to lift the recently lowered safety concerns with regard to epidemic prevention and control by taking strict legal measures under the principle of zero tolerance for violations of epidemic prevention rules. I urge you to launch a joint government epidemic prevention inspection team to intensively oversee the vulnerable facilities that are most often linked to increases in confirmed cases. At the same time, I ask all of the relevant ministers in charge of specific vulnerable facilities to assume the role of epidemic prevention officers, thereby enhancing their responsibilities for on-site inspections and management. In addition, special efforts should also be made to coordinate and cooperate with the newly inaugurated heads of municipal governments.
With limited production and the manufacturing countries’ policy of prioritizing their own countries causing global shortages, uncertainties about supplies are increasing, making it hard for most countries to secure vaccines. On a confident note, however, our country is significantly reducing this uncertainty through diverse efforts and countermeasures. In particular, having secured a domestic base for vaccine production is of significant help in overcoming supply-related uncertainty.
In-country production of Novavax’s vaccine will begin this month, and the raw and processed materials required for production during the first half of this year have also been secured. This has laid the foundation for a stable supply of vaccines manufactured by a Korean company. Bottled vaccines will be rolled out in June, and 20 million doses for our people are scheduled to be supplied by the end of the third quarter.
Nevertheless, I urge you to mobilize all of our administrative and diplomatic capabilities to secure additional vaccine doses and work to get them swiftly in order to resolve any remaining uncertainties and, furthermore, speed up inoculation. You must earnestly employ the pan-government cooperation system to devise all possible measures, including additional production and purchases and early procurements. Moreover, while closely monitoring global supplies, I’d like you to proactively consider introducing other vaccines whose immunization effects and stability have been confirmed – in addition to the vaccines that are scheduled to be brought in – so that we are prepared in advance even for situations that may arise. We must not only achieve the initial goal of herd immunity in November but also make all-out efforts to move up the date ahead of plan. The procurement of modified vaccines that can respond to mutations and doses for beyond next year has to be hastened.
Vaccination must be conducted in a swift and safe manner. The controversy over the safety of AstraZeneca’s vaccine has been brought to an end for now. The policy to administer it was set with public safety as the top priority and respect for expert opinions based on scientific facts. Vaccines are based on science. The high regard for Korea’s response to COVID-19 was also gained by thoroughly adhering to the principles of science. I urge the people to put their faith in scientific judgment and actively take part in the Government’s policy of inoculation.
There is a long way to go before herd immunity is reached. Korea’s successful response to COVID-19 was achieved through joint efforts with the public. The Government will carry it forward through watertight epidemic prevention efforts and uninterrupted vaccinations. I also ask the people to take extra precaution against the current situation. Please continue to participate in and cooperate with vaccinations and comply with epidemic prevention guidelines.