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S.Korea looks to US to help address COVID-19 vaccine shortage

South Korea’s foreign minister said on Wednesday he hopes the United States will help Seoul address its COVID-19 vaccine shortage as a return in favor of test kits and masks it sent to Washington earlier in the pandemic.

The request comes as the South Korean government has come under fire from local media for not doing enough to secure enough vaccines early. It has inoculated just 3 percent of its population due to tight global supply and limited access.

“We have been stressing to the US that ‘a friend in need is a friend indeed’,” Chung Eui-yong told reporters at the Kwanhun Club, a representative association of journalists in South Korea.

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-US alliance,” even as domestic supply was very tight.

“We are hoping that the US will help us out with the challenges we are facing with the vaccines, based on the solidarity we demonstrated last year.”

Chung said the two countries were in talks and raised the potential contribution it can make to the global vaccine supply chain that the US President Joe Biden is keen on.

Park Jin, an opposition party lawmaker, called for more aggressive vaccine diplomacy and urged the government to invoke its free trade agreement (FTA) with Washington to demand access to pharmaceutical products.

“The government needs to be more proactive… and 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,” Park told Reuters.

The US embassy in Seoul did not immediately reply to a Reuters’ request for comment.

Around 1.77 million people in South Korea have had their first dose of AstraZeneca Plc or Pfizer vaccines. The low inoculation rate compares with a 40 percent vaccination rate in the United States, according to a Reuters data.

South Korea reported 731 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, surging from 549 cases a day earlier, bringing the total number of confirmed cases to 115,926, with 1,806 deaths.

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