The government of North Korea rejected almost 3 million doses of China’s covid-19 vaccine Sinovac this week, claiming they should be sent to countries that are struggling with the coronavirus pandemic, according to U.S. state-financed broadcaster Voice of America. The authoritarian country has reported zero cases of covid-19 since the pandemic began.
North Korea, also ironically known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) under dictator Kim Jong-Un, was offered the Sinovac doses through the international cooperative effort known as Covax, which distributes covid-19 vaccines to low income countries.
“The DPRK Ministry of Public Health (MOPH) has communicated that the 2.97 million doses being offered to DPR Korea by COVAX may be relocated to severely affected countries in view of the limited global supply of covid-19 vaccines and recurrent surge in some countries,” a Unicef spokesperson told Voice of America.
Despite North Korea’s claims that it just wants other countries to get the vaccine first, the motivations are almost certainly not altruistic, and some experts speculate the country is rejecting Sinovac because it’s holding out for one of the big three brand names currently available in the U.S.—Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson.
Sinovac works as a vaccine, but is not nearly effective as vaccines developed in the west. Sinovac’s efficacy rate for infection is 65.9%, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, though that was before the emergence of the Delta variant. By contrast, Pfizer’s efficacy rate for infection was 76% and Moderna’s was 81%, according to a study from the Mayo Clinic, though that efficacy steeply declined in a follow-up with the Delta variant, plunging to just 42% for Pfizer and 76% for Moderna. Other studies have shown higher rates of efficacy for Pfizer against Delta.
Oddly enough, North Korea also rejected the UK’s AstraZeneca doses back in July over concerns about side effects, which are extremely rare. But those side effects, with blood clots being the most serious, gained widespread attention in places like Australia, hampering that country’s own vaccine rollout significantly.
At the end of the day, North Korea may not have the technology needed to store Pfizer vaccine, which requires extremely cold temperatures for refrigeration.
“The Kim regime likely wants the most safe and effective vaccine for the elite, but administering Pfizer would require upgraded cold-chain capability in Pyongyang and at least discreet discussions with the United States,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha Womans University in South Korea, told the Guardian this week.
“The [Johnson & Johnson] option could also be useful to North Korea given that vaccine’s portability and one-shot regimen,” Easley continued.
Whatever North Korea’s motivations for rejecting the doses, the country will face a tough 2022 if it chooses to proceed without covid-19 vaccinations of any kind. Because although the nation has the ability to seal up its borders like no other, the virus has a remarkable way of getting through. Just ask countries like Vietnam, New Zealand, and Australia—three places that did a fantastic job handling covid-19 in 2020 and are currently suffering from slow vaccine rollouts and the crushing wave of the Delta variant.