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For Covid-19 Vaccine, South Korea Says It Can Wait Until the Price Is Right

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Visitors wearing face masks arrive at the Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul on Nov. 16.

Visitors wearing face masks arrive at the Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul on Nov. 16.

Photo: Lee Jin-man/Associated Press

SEOUL—As many countries jockey to get Covid-19 vaccines, South Korea is plotting a different course: It can wait.

The laxer stance pulled into the public eye at a Tuesday parliamentary hearing, when South Korea’s health minister said the country had been offered more than 30 million doses of the experimental vaccines made by pharmaceutical companies including
Moderna Inc.,
plus another by
Pfizer Inc.
and
BioNTech SE.
Global optimism has soared recently after both vaccines showed effectiveness above 90%.

But South Korea is in no rush to make a deal, as it negotiates to get a reasonable price for the vaccines, said Park Neung-hoo, South Korea’s health minister, at the hearing. Pfizer and Moderna have recently reached out to South Korea, seeking to get the country to swiftly commit to purchase contracts, he added.

“Contrary to expectations, the companies are hurrying to sign a contract with us,” Mr. Park said.

While life in South Korea, China and Japan has broadly returned to normal, the U.S. and Europe face new surges in Covid-19 cases. WSJ explains how countries in East Asia have kept the virus in check without nationwide lockdowns. Photos: Abdulmonam Eassa and Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty

South Korea, whose success in combating the virus has become a global model, wants to eventually vaccinate 60% of the country’s 52 million residents. President Moon Jae-in has pledged the government’s full support. But health officials have been more circumspect, worried that the fast-tracked vaccines might not be effective or could carry long-term side effects. They have stated a preference to see first how rollouts go elsewhere.

Government officials in the U.S., Europe and Japan—which have already procured large batches of vaccines—have said they are hoping to begin administering the treatments early next year, though widespread distribution could take months longer.

Meanwhile, South Korean health officials have aimed to vaccinate its population before next fall. The country plans to release a detailed vaccination program by early next month.

It has previously stated it wanted to obtain 10 million doses through the Covax initiative, the main global effort to broadly provide vaccines, plus another 20 million from private companies.

Moderna has already signed contracts with the U.S., Japan, Canada and Switzerland to supply its vaccine. Pfizer has made deals with the U.S., U.K., European Union, Japan and others. Neither company immediately responded to a request for comment.

Health experts say South Korea has the luxury of waiting to see how well the vaccines work because it has kept a strong handle on outbreaks. It can also see which vaccines, among the dozens of candidates, prove to work best, said Chul-woo Rhee, a research scientist at the International Vaccine Institute in Seoul.

“There’s no reason to bear the risk and rush to pre-order vaccines when you can maintain a low number of cases,” Mr. Rhee said. “South Korea is not in an urgent situation like the U.S. or Europe.”

South Korea’s reservations are in contrast with the stance of officials in the U.S. and Europe, where virus outbreaks have roared back to new peaks. It also marks a different approach from neighboring Japan, which has already signed deals with three manufacturers to purchase 290 million doses, or enough for 145 million people—more than the country’s population of about 126 million. Japan has pledged about $6.5 billion for the purchases.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has said the government aims to vaccinate everyone in the country by the first half of 2021. If successful, that would leave Japan well-prepared for an influx of visitors for the Tokyo Summer Olympics, which are planned to open in July after a one-year delay.

South Korea reported 313 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, the highest number since late August. But the country’s mass testing and contact-tracing program implemented early on has protected medical facilities from being overwhelmed, as in the U.S., and life has largely returned to normal.

Health officials plan to soon tighten social-distancing rules for the Seoul metropolitan area—home to roughly half of the country’s population—though the uptick brings it to the second-lowest level of a five-tier system.

While the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have proved to be highly effective in preliminary results, the novel gene-based technology used by the two companies, known as messenger RNA, has never been approved to prevent any infectious disease.

Other potential entries, including those from
Johnson & Johnson
and
AstraZeneca
PLC, are expected to be sold at a cheaper price when their trials conclude.

South Korean health officials said they are considering vaccines from five different companies including Moderna and Pfizer. They believe vaccinating three-fifths of the country’s population will result in herd immunity.

“We are discussing which vaccines to choose, our strategy and order of priority for vaccination,” Kwon Jun-wook, the deputy director of Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, said at a Tuesday briefing. “There is no reason for our citizens to be anxious about vaccine procurement.”

Write to Dasl Yoon at dasl.yoon@wsj.com

A Global Asset Management Seoul Korea Magazine

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