By Sangmi Cha
SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea hopes the United States will help it tackle a shortage of coronavirus vaccine in return for test kits and masks Seoul sent to Washington earlier in the pandemic, the foreign minister said on Wednesday.
The government has drawn fire from the media for not doing enough to secure enough vaccines early, with just 3% of the population inoculated, due to tight global supply and limited access.
“We have been stressing to the United States that ‘A friend in need is a friend indeed,'” the minister, Chung Eui-yong, told reporters at the Kwanhun Club of South Korean journalists.
He said South Korea had airlifted Washington a large volume of coronavirus test kits and face masks in the early stages of the pandemic “in the spirit of the special South Korea-U.S. alliance,” despite tight domestic supply at the time.
“We are hoping that the United States will help us out with the challenges we are facing with the vaccines, based on the solidarity we demonstrated last year.”
The allies were in talks, added Chung, who also flagged South Korea’s potential contribution to preserving a global semiconductor supply chain U.S. President Joe Biden is keen to maintain.
Diplomatic efforts have not yielded any concrete steps, however, as the talks with Washington are still in an early stage, health ministry official Son Young-rae told reporters.
Opposition lawmaker Park Jin urged more aggressive vaccine diplomacy, calling for the government to invoke its free trade pact (FTA) with Washington to secure pharmaceutical products.
“The government needs to be more proactive,” Park told Reuters.
“The FTA provides us a legal base to demand (vaccines) as it stipulates the two countries’ commitment to promoting the development of, and facilitating access to, pharmaceutical products.”
The U.S. embassy in Seoul did not immediately reply to a Reuters’ request for comment.
About 1.77 million people in South Korea have had their first dose of the AstraZeneca Plc or Pfizer vaccines. The low rate compares with a 40% vaccination rate in the United States, according to Reuters data.
Tuesday’s 731 new coronavirus infections, up from 549 cases a day earlier, took South Korea’s tally to 115,926, with 1,806 deaths.