[Anniversary Special] ‘Will it end?' Top vaccine expert asks for hopeful patience

[Anniversary Special] ‘Will it end?’ Top vaccine expert asks for hopeful patience
Dr. Jerome H. Kim, director general of the Seoul-based International Vaccine Institute (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)Our exit from the COVID-19 pandemic will be a gradual process, with the ferocious beast becoming progressively less threatening until it becomes something we can live with, says the International Vaccine Institute’s director general, Dr. Jerome H. Kim.

“Successful vaccination turns the tiger that is COVID-19 into an alley cat. Many fewer people will end up in hospitals or on ventilators, and deaths will be very rare,” he said. Real-world experience from better-vaccinated parts of the world shows that there is “a promise of a better future.”

“The cat doesn’t go away, but it’s something that we can live with.”

More than a year and a half into the pandemic, a reminder was in order that this is “not a single battle, but a war,” he said.

“There will be triumphs and reverses. The objective in the end is to win the pennant, and we have to be patient.”

What will it take to get normal back?

Kim said the delta variant of the virus has changed the calculus behind herd immunity. The estimated minimum vaccination threshold of 70 percent, which was based on what we knew about the original virus, now needs to be higher.

“The infectiousness of delta appears to be close to that of chickenpox, and that may change the number of people who need to be vaccinated. We would need to have vaccination rates of over 80 percent, or even higher,” he said.

“I would expect that South Korea will start to see an impact as we pass 50-60 percent — ideally fully vaccinated, which is necessary for delta, and further incremental decreases will be seen as we hit 70-80 percent. South Korea should aim for higher than 90 percent, eventually, and I would include children in the total number.”

Now may be a time to start defining what we mean by success against COVID-19, he said, “which won’t necessarily be the absence of infections, but the control of bad outcomes from the disease.”

When we get to that point, what we monitor will not be the number of PCR-positive infections, but the number of hospitalizations, alongside a survey of mild infections and sequencing of variants, he said.

“In the end, we may be able to think of COVID-19 like we do about measles — not eradicated globally, but no domestic transmission. Cases can be imported, but vaccination will keep them from becoming large outbreaks,” he said. “Hopefully this isn’t too optimistic a scenario.”

For now, distancing and masks stay

“One of the things that may be a bit unusual about delta is that even after you’re vaccinated, when you become infected, the amount of virus that can be sampled from your nose or throat is almost the same as a person who’s not been vaccinated,” he said.

“That’s the reason why even if you’ve been vaccinated, you should still wear masks until enough people are vaccinated, because you can spread it to other people just as readily.”

When masks are added, the evolution of the virus is also slower, especially in the setting of a larger outbreak.

“If Korea were vaccinating slowly back in the summer of last year when it had few infections, the mutation rate wouldn’t be very great at all. But when you’re vaccinating in the middle of an outbreak, then you can run into problems,” he said.

“To vaccinate and continue to use masks is the correct approach, and it’s the approach that appears to decrease the development of vaccine-resistant mutants.”

As for hasty calls for dropping restrictions, he said, “In countries that opened up too soon, we’ve witnessed that the pandemic then turns to the unvaccinated adults and children. We don’t want to relearn the horrible and tragic lessons country after country.”

He pointed out that even with the current wave, low by comparison to other parts of the world, hospitals in South Korea were struggling.

“All you need to do is look at the hospitals. Past a certain capacity, you’re going to be seeing patients who are denied access to care — not just patients with COVID-19, but patients with other conditions that require intensive care.”

Hope despite variants

So far the virus has been making “pretty predictable” mutations, largely in terms of its transmissibility, he said. Delta is still covered by the vaccines, for one thing.

“But there’s a strain found in Latin America called lambda, which is a little more resistant to some of the protective immune responses that are induced by the vaccine,” he said.

“The delay in implementation of vaccination in countries around the world, and the lack of their ability to control the outbreaks through distancing and masks have meant that a lot more mutations have arisen,” he said. “During these uncontrolled outbreaks, the virus is mutating, and we fear that the virus could mutate to become both transmissible and resistant.”

He said in a sense, it was “a race between our ability to vaccinate enough people while the vaccines are still effective, and the ability of the virus to change itself.”

Hope is growing that new, better vaccines are on the way. Scientists are now working on what is called a universal vaccine, a vaccine that will work against multiple variants.

“The variant vaccines, much like the multivalent vaccine — three or four vaccines in one type — that we have against influenza, are already in the works, and we hope to cover everything that way,” he said.

“Whether we will need one vaccine or a combination of different vaccines is something we don’t know yet,” he said. “The process of testing and reviewing the new vaccines will hopefully be faster, since they’re similar to ones that have been used, except this time they cover a much broader range of strains.”

Vaccinating North Korea

Our vaccination efforts must go beyond the borders of each country, he said.

“We wouldn’t have to have a new mutant like delta somewhere else in the world that could all of a sudden appear in Korea,” he said. “So we have to track what the ongoing threats are outside of Korea.”

For South Korea, the country’s neighbors in the North going unvaccinated raises concerns.

“It’s a big problem for the people of North Korea, and then potentially for the rest of the world — countries in particular that have a lot of traffic with North Korea over the border, and through other trade means. Potential exists there to be both mutants and transmission.”

He warned that “all countries in this world have to be considered a part of the solution. Otherwise, they will become a part of the problem.”

Still, the paramount task at the moment remains putting into place an impactful vaccination program that can rein in the virus at least within individual countries. “That will be the first job because if we can do that, then maybe we can start extending it the same way measles was eliminated,” he explained.

“I know that the government’s first responsibility is to the people of Korea,” he said, as it is for governments everywhere.

“On the other hand, they have purchased a lot of vaccines and some of it should be moved over to the mechanism that distributes them to help countries around the world. I know the Korean government has committed to this.

“Ultimately, we should try actively to vaccinate as many people (as possible) around the world.”

Internet Explorer Channel Network
News Related


New cases near 2,000 amid rising vaccination rate

Employees at a travel agency in Seoul return to work on Wednesday, as COVID-19 confirmed cases showed signs of a slowdown. (Yonhap)South Korea’s daily new COVID-19 cases neared the 2,000s ... Read more »

[Newsmaker] Is fluent Korean a must for at-home COVID-19 care? Not necessarily

To ease bed shortages, Korea is expanding at-home care for COVID-19 patients who are mildly sick. By Tuesday, more than 3,000 patients nationwide were isolating at home, instead of at ... Read more »

7 in 10 workers unaware of newly revised workplace anti-bullying law: survey

(Yonhap)Many South Korean workers are unaware of the newly revised labor law that will take effect later this week to better prevent workplace bullying, a survey showed Wednesday. The survey ... Read more »

Death of student apprentice stirs controversy

A memorial altar is prepared for high school student who died in Yeosu, South Jeolla Province, on Oct. 6 while taking part in his school`s apprenticeship program. (Yonhap)The case of ... Read more »

S. Korea begins mapping out route back to normalcy

Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum speaks Wednesday during the first meeting of the government-civilian committee launched to set up guidelines and hold discussions before beginning the normalization process in November. (Yonhap)South ... Read more »

New cases stay in 1,000s for 5th day on increased tests

A medical worker (R) checks the body temperature of people who are set to receive additional vaccine jabs at a vaccination center in Seoul on Tuesday. Health authorities started giving ... Read more »

Lee Jae-myung denies allegations of corruption surrounding land scandal

Kim Man-bae, owner and major stakeholder of the Hwacheon Daeyu asset management company, speaks to reporters after having arrived at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office for questioning. (Yonhap)Gyeonggi Province ... Read more »

Stalker, murderer of three sentenced to life in prison

Kim Tae-hyun speaks to the media at a police station in Seoul on April 9. (Yonhap)A South Korean man who murdered three women in the same family was sentenced to ... Read more »

Rapper NO:EL arrested over allegedly assaulting police officer, refusing breathalyzer

This Sept. 30, 2021, file photo shows rapper NO:EL, whose legal name is Chang Yong-jun, entering Seocho Police Station in southern Seoul as part of an investigation over his alleged ... Read more »

South Korea seeks to live with pandemic

As of Monday at midnight, the number of new confirmed cases increased by 1,347, resulting in a cumulative total of 334,163. (Yonhap) South Korea is seeking to live with the ... Read more »

Number of employment insurance subscribers in service sector surpasses 10m for 1st time in 26 years

Two women look at a billboard advertising jobs in Seoul. (Yonhap)The number of state employment insurance subscribers in the service sector topped 10 million last month for the first time ... Read more »

60% sexual violence support center heads are non-experts: lawmaker

(123rf)Over 60 percent of sex crime support centers are headed by those with no expertise in the field, the main opposition People Power Party’s Rep. Kim Byong-wook said, citing Ministry ... Read more »

President Moon Jae-in said Tuesday that the country is about to enter the "last gateway" to a return to normal following the COVID-19 pandemic.

This photo shows President Moon Jae-in presiding over a Cabinet meeting at Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap)President Moon Jae-in said Tuesday that the country is about to ... Read more »

Top court orders gov't to pay DSME W31b in dispute over salvage ship delivery

This file image provided by Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering Co. shows its logo. (Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering Co.)The Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the government to pay Daewoo ... Read more »

Man given life sentence for murdering online friend he stalked, family members

Suspect Kim Tae-hyeon speaks before being sent to the Seoul Northern District Prosecutors’ Office. (Yonhap)A Seoul court on Tuesday sentenced a young man to life imprisonment for brutally killing an ... Read more »

PM calls on more foreign residents to get vaccinated amid resurgence concerns

Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum attends a meeting of the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters in Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap)Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum on Tuesday called on foreign residents to ... Read more »

New infections remain in 1,000s for 4th day on fewer tests over extended weekend

A health worker in a protective suit conducts a COVID-19 test at a makeshift clinic in Seoul on Monday. (Yonhap)South Korea’s daily new COVID-19 cases hovered around the 1,000s for ... Read more »

Korea's blueprint for post-vaccine normal begins to take shape

This photo taken Oct. 8 shows health care workers in protective suits at a testing center in Songpa, southern Seoul. (Yonhap)South Korea’s plans to get back to a normal life ... Read more »

[News Focus] Employment index in steady improvement in 2021

People gather in a job fair at Kintex in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, Thursday. (Yonhap)SEJONG – South Korean hiring is showing signs of recovery, though it is hard to say that ... Read more »

[Us and Them] Migrant workers' struggles in Korea continue despite better awareness

Emmanuel Sanou, head of dance group Koule Kan, who moved to Korea and lives as an artist, performs at a press conference urging to improve support policies for foreign artists ... Read more »

New cases under 2,000 for 3rd day on fewer tests; potential upticks still worrisome

A health worker in a protective suit guides citizens at a makeshift COVID-19 testing clinic in Seoul on Sunday. (Yonhap)South Korea’s daily new COVID-19 cases stayed below 2,000 for a ... Read more »

Korea adds period disorders to list of reportable COVID-19 vaccine side effects

yonhapSouth Korea will add menstrual disorders to its list of reportable adverse events following COVID-19 vaccination, according to a parliamentary audit report of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency. ... Read more »

S. Korea to form gov't-private panel for move toward 'living with COVID-19'

Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum (Yonhap) South Korea said Sunday it will set up a committee this week for a strategy on the “New Normal” of “living with COVID-19,” with the ... Read more »

New infections under 2,000 for 2nd day amid concerns over spread during holidays

The country added 1,594 more COVID-19 cases, including 1,560 local infections as of Saturday midnight. (Yonhap)South Korea’s daily new COVID-19 cases remained below 2,000 for a second straight day Sunday ... Read more »

Seoul city gov't bans labor group's planned street rallies this month

  Buses mobilized to block rallies are lined up in front of Gwanghwamun, Seoul on Oct. 3. (Yonhap) The Seoul city government has prohibited South Korea’s major umbrella labor group ... Read more »

South Korea grants asylum to Angolan family

This Feb. 19, 2019, photo shows activists rallying at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, urging the immigration office to grant entry to Nkuka Lulendo and his family. (Yonhap) The ... Read more »

New cases under 2,000, authorities vigilant over autumn travelers

A visitor receives a COVID-19 test at a makeshift clinic in Busan, 453 kilometers south of Seoul, on Oct. 8, 2021. (Yonhap) South Korea‘s daily new coronavirus cases fell below ... Read more »

More than 30m people fully vaccinated in S. Korea

Citizens are monitored for possible side effects after receiving a COVID-19 jab at a makeshift clinic in western Seoul on Oct. 7, 2021. (Yonhap) The number of fully vaccinated people ... Read more »

Busan's Haeundae Beach loses over 20% of white sand from erosion: data

(Yonhap)South Korea’s best-known Haeundae Beach in the southeastern city of Busan lost nearly a quarter of its white sand area between 2016 and 2020 due to acceleration of coastal erosion, ... Read more »

Seoul raises emissions reduction target

(123rf)The government raised its goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2030, the presidential carbon neutrality committee said Friday. The previous goal was to decrease the level ... Read more »

Prosecutors seek 15-year prison term for airman over death of sexual harassment victim

This photo, taken on Thursday, shows the father of a deceased Air Force noncommissioned officer touching a picture of his daughter set up at the memorial altar in a military ... Read more »

Seoul announces incentives for vaccinated overstayers

A woman holds a small bottle labeled with a “Coronavirus COVID-19 Vaccine” sticker and a medical syringe in front of displayed Pfizer logo. (Reuters-Yonhap)Illegal stayers who want to leave South ... Read more »

S. Korea raises level of greenhouse gas reduction goal from 26% to 40%

(123rf)South Korea on Friday drastically raised the level of its greenhouse gas reduction goal from 26.3 percent to 40 percent by 2030, as part of its broader aim to slowly ... Read more »

The many thorny questions of COVID-19 vaccine pass

This photo taken Tuesday shows people waiting inside a COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Seoul. (Yonhap) South Korea says that proof of COVID-19 vaccination may soon be necessary for people to ... Read more »

Subsidies needed to address poverty among older adults: lawmaker

(Getty Images)More government support is required to address poverty among the nation’s older adults, a lawmaker said Thursday. According to the most recent data from Statistics Korea revealed by Rep. ... Read more »

[News Focus] Share of Koreans aged 40 or over surges

A view of a Seoul metro station in 1976 when the share of people aged 65 or over stayed at 3.5 percent of the total South Korean population. (National Archives ... Read more »

Starbucks Korea employees stage truck protest over excessive workload

A truck hired by Starbucks Coffee Korea employees stands on a road in southern Seoul on Thursday, carrying a sign calling for the improvement of their working conditions. (Yonhap)Employees of ... Read more »

Umbrella union renews threat to go on general strike

Yoon Taek-geun, the acting chief of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, speaks during a press conference held at its office in central Seoul on Thursday, to announce its plan ... Read more »

New cases in 2,000s for 2nd day, resurgence in wider Seoul worrisome

This photo taken in Yongsan on Wednesday, shows a notice that encourages foreigners residing in South Korea to take a coronavirus test free of charge. (Yonhap)South Korea’s daily new coronavirus ... Read more »

Car accidents involving unlicensed teenagers rise by 34%: data

This file photo, provided by the fire authority of the southern Jeju Island, shows a car that crahsed into a traffic pole. The car was known to have been driven ... Read more »