Deaths rattle South Korea's seasonal flu vaccination, but authority presses ahead with free scheme

South Korea is preparing to fight two infectious diseases this winter: the novel coronavirus and the flu. But reports of deaths after flu shot vaccination may jeopardize the second effort.

As of Friday afternoon local time, 36 people have died in Korea after getting flu shots, including a 17-year-old high schooler, Korea Biomedical Review reported. Some district and municipal governments have put out requests to hospitals to suspend influenza vaccination, but the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) still wants the national program to move ahead, refuting a link between the vaccines and the deaths.

“The number of deaths has increased, but our team sees the low possibility that the deaths resulted from the shots,” KDCA Commissioner Jeong Eun-kyeong told lawmakers at a hearing on Thursday, according to Reuters. Health Minister Park Neung-hoo, for his part, promised to “thoroughly examine the entire process in which various government agencies are involved, from production to distribution.”

At least seven companies’ products were reportedly tied to the deaths, including France-based Sanofi and six domestic firms—SK Bioscience, Shinsung Pharm, Korea Vaccine, GC Pharma, Boryung Biopharma and LG Chem. Sanofi didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The first reported death, of the 17-year-old high schooler, came two days after a Shinsung shot. KDCA said Friday that the death was not related to the vaccination, citing an autopsy result, according to Korea Biomedical Review.

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Back in September, before the deaths began, the KDCA temporarily halted its free national flu inoculation program, citing cold-chain problems. Turns out, a batch of Shinsung’s vaccines were left at room temperature during transportation when they should have been refrigerated. A recall followed, but some 2,300 doses had already been given, according to The New York Times. High temperatures would render a flu vaccine ineffective but not likely toxic.

Earlier this month, another 615,000 doses of flu shots were recalled by Korea Vaccine after white particles were found in the shots, although the substances were later labeled as harmless, The Korea Times reported.

Most of the deaths happened in elderly people, who are covered by the country’s free vaccination scheme. KDCA said Thursday that at least seven of the nine people it investigated had underlying health problems, according to Reuters.

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Korean health authorities maintain that their investigations found the deaths unrelated to the vaccines. “The vaccine products administered to the deceased were all different and they did not receive the drug at the same medical institution,” Jung said, as quoted by Korea Biomedical Review. “The possibility of a link between the deaths and vaccines is low, and we are cautious about stopping the flu vaccine project.”

So far, that kind of assurance has done little to assuage concerns. The Korean Medical Association, an influential doctor organization, as well as the opposing People Power Party, have urged the government to halt the flu vaccine program for at least a week to investigate the incidents further.