- More than 80 people have died in South Korea following influenza vaccination.
- After an investigation into the safety of the vaccines, South Korean health authorities ruled the deaths as “coincidental.”
- The public health agency in South Korea has decided to continue and promote its free influenza vaccine program despite public anxiety relating to the deaths associated with the flu shots.
South Korea’s public health agency, Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reported that a total of 83 people, most of whom were elderly (over the age of 70), died after being administered a seasonal influenza vaccine.1
Government Suspended Influenza Vaccine Program After Refrigeration Issues
In late September 2020, it was reported that about 5 million influenza vaccine doses, which were required to be refrigerated, had been exposed to room temperature while being transported to medical institutions. On Sept. 22, 2020, the government suspended its free influenza vaccine program available to eligible groups for three weeks until mid-October 2020 to check the safety of the doses.2
According to the KDCA’s commissioner, Jeong Eun-kyeong, the problem arose during distribution and not during the manufacturing process of the vaccines.3 The agency said that quality tests and inspections found no safety problems and the influenza vaccine program was resumed on Oct. 13, 2020.4
Deaths Following Influenza Vaccination Continue to Increase
The KDCA has said that a total of 9.68 million people have been vaccinated through South Korea’s National Immunization Program so far. Of those that have been vaccinated, at least 1,551 people have reported adverse side effects.5
Authorities Say Deaths Are “Coincidental”
Government health authorities in South Korea have said that investigations found no causal association between the deaths and the influenza vaccine. According to the agency, after reviewing the autopsies of 71 deceased patients, most of whom were in their 70s and 80s, it was found that there was no direct link between the influenza vaccination and deaths.
Of the 71 autopsies, KDCA found that each person had a serious underlying health condition. Some of the autopsies showed that 13 people died of cardiovascular, cerebrovascular and other disorders.9 The cause of death in the remaining autopsy is unknown.10
The agency said the deaths were “coincidental.” In a statement, KDCA officials stated that, “Following examinations, the KDCA has come to a conclusion that there is little causality between the recently increased report of deaths and influenza vaccination.”11
Emeritus professor Lee Hoan-Jong at the Seoul National University Children’s Hospital agreed with the government’s conclusion regarding the deaths. He said:
We can’t say the deaths are due to contamination by any particular batch of vaccine or a vaccination programme error. I agree with the government view that the deaths and vaccination are just coincidental.12
KDCA Continues Its Influenza Program Despite Public Anxiety About Vaccine Safety
South Korean health authorities say that because they found no association between the deaths and the influenza vaccine, they plan on continuing the state-run influenza vaccine program. KDCA Commissioner Jeong Eun-kyeong stated that, “After reviewing death cases so far, it is not the time to suspend a flu vaccination program since vaccination is very crucial this year, considering… the COVID-19 outbreaks.”13
While encouraging people to continue getting the influenza vaccine, Eun-kyeong issued precautions before getting the vaccine, such as drinking enough water and telling healthcare workers about any underlying medical conditions. She also advised people to wait 15-30 minutes before leaving the clinic where they receive their vaccine. She said, “If possible, try to get the flu shot when it’s warm, since there are concerns that low temperatures could affect cardiovascular disease or cerebrovascular disease.”14
Five Influenza Vaccine Manufacturers In South Korea Decline To Make A Public Comment
Pharmaceutical companies that manufacture Influenza vaccines in South Korea include domestic firms such as GC Pharma, SK Bioscience, Korea Vaccine and Boryung Biopharma Co. Ltd. and French pharmaceutical Sanofi Pasteur.15 They supply both the free vaccine program and paid services that aim to vaccinate about 30 million people out of a population of 52 million.16
All four domestic firms declined to make a public comment, while Sanofi did not immediately reply to requests for comment. It is not clear if any of the vaccines made in South Korea were exported elsewhere or if those supplied by Sanofi Pasteur are also being used in other countries.17
1 Yonhap. 83 deaths reported among people who received flu vaccine: authorities. Korea Herald Oct. 31, 2020.
2 Shin H, Cha S. South Korea sticks to flu vaccine plan despite safety fears after 25 die. Reuters Oct. 21. 2020.
3 KBS World. Gov’t Suspends Annual Flu Shots after Vaccines Exposed to Room Temp. Sept. 22, 2020.
4 Yonhap. Govt. to resume free flu shot program next week after safety concerns cleared. Korean Herald Oct. 8, 2020.
5 Colarossi N. 72 Deaths in South Korea Not Tied to Recent Flu Vaccinations, Country Continuing With Inoculation Program. Newsweek Oct. 29, 2020.
6 Chan-Kyong P. Flu vaccine deaths: South Korean officials line up for shots after deaths fuel rumors of shoddy vaccines. South China Morning Post Oct. 29, 2020.
7 See Footnote 1.
8 See Footnote 5.
9 Yang H. South Korean authorities stick to flu vaccine plan after deaths rise to 48. Reuters Oct. 24, 2020.
10 See Footnote 5.
11 See Footnote 6.
12 Chan-Kyong P. Flu vaccine deaths: South Korea scrambles to control panic, says any link is ‘coincidental’. South China Morning Post Oct. 27, 2020.
13 See Footnote 9.
15 See Footnote 2.