Israel flies 700,000 Pfizer vaccines to Seoul in swap deal

Agreement brokered with South Korea will see Israel receive vaccines in September-November in exchange for doses set to expire at end of this month

A poster hoping to overcome the COVID-19 crisis is displayed at a train station in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, July 6, 2021. (AP/Ahn Young-joon)
A poster hoping to overcome the COVID-19 crisis is displayed at a train station in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, July 6, 2021. (AP/Ahn Young-joon)

A plane carrying some 700,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine that are due to expire in weeks took off for Seoul on Tuesday afternoon, as part of a deal between Israel and South Korea that will see the Asian nation send fresh vaccines in exchange later in the year.

Korean officials said the doses would arrive early Wednesday morning and be immediately dispatched to distribution centers, as the country looks to rein in a renewed outbreak of the coronavirus.

Under the deal with Seoul, Israel will supply doses for immediate use that are set to expire by the end of the month. In return, Israel will receive the same number of doses from South Korean orders later in the year. Seoul said the deal called for the shots to be sent to Israel from September to November.

Officials in both countries called the deal, which was inked earlier in the day, a “win-win.”

Israel has been scrambling to use up or trade away over 1 million doses of the vaccine that expire at the end of July. According to South Korea’s Disease Control and Prevention Agency, negotiations had originally been for 800,000 doses, but the amount was lowered due to a spurt of interest in vaccinations in Israel, where authorities have begun pushing for teens aged 12 to 15 to be inoculated.

Jung Eun-kyeong, Korea’s top infectious disease expert, said the Seoul government will continue to pursue swap deals with other countries.

“We are expecting to have a sufficient number of vaccines during the fourth quarter while we proceed with our vaccination campaign,” said Jung, director of the agency.

South Korean Centers for Disease Control director Jung Eun-kyeong during a press conference at the government complex in Seoul, South Korea, January 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

The deal comes weeks after the Palestinian Authority backed out of a similar agreement, saying the vaccine doses were too close to their expiration date, despite Israel using the same batches to vaccinate its teens.

Jung stressed that the vaccines “were used in Israel and there is no problem with quality.”

“This exchange arrangement was made based on the thoughts shared by all countries, including South Korea and Israel, that even a single drop of a vaccine should not go down the drain,” South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Choi Young-sam said.

According to the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, the agreement was negotiated by Israel’s Health Ministry together with the Foreign Ministry and the National Security Council.

Consultations between Israel and South Korea on the deal picked up pace when then-Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi visited Seoul in May, the South Korean Yonhap News Agency reported.

Tourist information helpers wearing face masks walk along a popular shopping street in Seoul, South Korea, December 2, 2020. (Ahn Young-joon/AP)

The PMO statement said the agreement was made with the cooperation of Pfizer and came after several conversations in recent days between Bennett and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla.

The agreement will officially go into effect in the next few days after South Korea inspects the vaccines, the statement said. Korea said the vaccines would be given emergency use approval so they could swiftly be dispatched to Seoul and the Gyeonggi province, where the country’s newest outbreak has been centered.

South Korea hit 1,006 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, its highest total since early January. Israel meanwhile is seeing the most new daily infections in three months, with the Delta variant driving the trend, the government says. Both governments are considering ways to curb the virus’s spread.

Prime Minister Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (L) and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz attend a press conference at a Maccabi vaccine center in Holon on June 29 2021 (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

South Korea has so far administered first doses to just 30% of its population of 51 million. Israel has fully vaccinated nearly 5.3 million people of its population of 9.3 million.

Israel purchased millions of vaccines from Pfizer and was among the first countries to receive them late last year, for an undisclosed amount. It inked a deal in April under former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu for 18 million more doses, in case they are needed for booster shots. Those doses have yet to arrive.

In June, Ramallah said it was canceling an agreement that would see some 1 million Pfizer vaccine doses handed from Israel to the Palestinian Authority, citing the close expiration date of the doses. The Health Ministry in Jerusalem expressed surprise at the move at the time, saying in a statement that the doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech inoculation were “perfectly sound” and “identical in every way to the vaccines currently being given to citizens of Israel.”

Officials say it is standard practice to use vaccines whose expiration date is close, and so long as the date has not passed, manufacturers deem them perfectly safe.

AP contributed to this report.

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