South Korea finds no link between flu shot, boy's death as toll rises

FILE PHOTO: A man gets an influenza vaccine at a hospital in Seoul, South Korea, October 21, 2020. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea's forensic agency has found no links between a 17-year-old boy's death and a flu shot he had taken, the Yonhap news agency reported, amid rising concerns about the safety of the vaccines following the death of at least 32 people.

The boy was among the first reported to have died as part of a government campaign to vaccinate about 30 million of a population of 52 million to prevent coronavirus complications.

The toll has reached 25 over the past week as of Thursday, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said, sparking calls from doctors and politicians for a halt to the programme. Yonhap reported on Friday there were seven new deaths overnight.

Health authorities have refused to suspend the campaign citing a lack of evidence to suggest direct links between the deaths and the vaccines.

The National Forensic Service has conducted autopsies on some of the deceased and determined that the vaccine did not cause the 17-year-boy's death, Yonhap said, citing police.

Both the forensic agency and police were not immediately reachable for comment.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun expressed condolences to the families of the deceased, calling for a thorough investigation to verify the exact cause of deaths.

"So far experts said there was low possibility that the shots and deaths were related but many citizens remain anxious," he told a meeting.

At least 22 of the 25 confirmed cases including the boy received a free flu shot the government has allotted for about 19 million teenagers and senior citizens, and seven of the nine people investigated had underlying conditions, the KDCA said.

The agency has not yet provided details about seven new reported cases.

The vaccine providers include domestic firms such as GC Pharma, SK Bioscience, Korea Vaccine and Boryung Biopharma Co Ltd, a unit of Boryung Pharm Co Ltd <003850.KS>, along with France's Sanofi . They supply both the free programme and paid services.

Ten people received products from SK Bioscience, five each from Boryung and GC Pharma, four from Sanofi and one from Korea Vaccine.

KDCA director Jeong Eun-kyeong said on Thursday that those vaccines would continue to be supplied but the government might consider suspending some products that have identification numbers matching batches manufactured at the same plant on the same day if more people die using them.

It was not immediately clear if any of the vaccines made in South Korea were exported, or if those supplied by Sanofi were also being used elsewhere.

All four domestic firms declined to comment, while Sanofi did not respond to requests for comment.

South Korea ordered 20% more flu vaccines this year to ward off what it calls a "twindemic" of concurrent major flu and COVID-19 outbreaks in winter.

The KDCA reported 155 new cases as of Thursday midnight, for the second consecutive day the daily tally marked a triple-digit increase after largely hovering below 100 over the last two weeks. It brought the total infections to 25,698, with 455 deaths.

So far 8.3 million people had been inoculated since the programme began on Oct. 13, with about 350 cases of adverse reactions reported, the KDCA said.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Michael Perry and Stephen Coates)

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