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Virus surge raises self-test shortage fears

Convenience stores, pharmacies run out of stock; drug ministry says enough supply secured

A sign reads self-test kits are stored at a pharmacy in Seoul on Jan. 26. (Yonhap)
A sign reads self-test kits are stored at a pharmacy in Seoul on Jan. 26. (Yonhap)
The recent surge in the number of COVID-19 cases has increased the demand for self-test kits, and is causing alarm as there are signs of another supply shortage reminiscent of the mask scarcity seen two years ago.

Sales of self-test kits at convenience stores have soared since Jan. 26 when the country’s daily confirmed cases broke 10,000 for the first time. Some stores quickly ran out of stock as the supply could not keep up. A similar pattern has been seen at pharmacies.

“Since the government’s announcement last month, more customers bought self-test kits and some days we would run out of stock before noon,” said a pharmacist in Seoul.

“I heard from my pharmacist friends that some of them have been going through similar experiences.”

In order to better cope with the highly infectious omicron variant, The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency on Thursday began administering the polymerase chain reaction tests only to people in high-risk groups such as the elderly aged 60 or older.

As for those outside the high-risk groups, they can get the PCR tests if self-test kits show positive results. This, along with the spike in virus infections, prompted the rush for self-test kits.

The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety on Saturday announced the plan to supply 10 million self-test kits this week to pharmacies nationwide and online shopping malls.

“We will continue to secure and provide enough supply of self-test kits, so individuals do not have to buy too many of them. Public health centers and COVID-19 testing centers also offer them at zero cost,” the ministry said.

As to how many more self-test kits will be rolled out next week, a ministry official told The Korea Herald that there is no set number planned yet and the authorities are in talks with manufacturers, adding that the self-test kit supply amount was announced to inform the public.

An official at SD Biosensor, a local self-test kit maker, said the company is expanding the production capacity of their diagnostic kits to meet the increasing demand. The firm produced 160 million self-test kits in the last month and plans to bring monthly production to 400 million in the future, according to the official.

According to the government, up to 7.5 million self-test kits can be produced per day so there should not be a problem with supply. But health authorities acknowledged that there could bumps in the process of distribution since the manufacturers were not in operation during the Lunar New Year holidays last week.

In order to bolster the supply chain, the government on Friday authorized the usages of two additional self-test kit products. Currently, there are five self-test kits approved by the government.

As the number of daily confirmed cases is projected to reach 130,000 by the end of the month, the Korean government is looking into offering self-test kits for all citizens. The US and UK are providing self-test kits for free of charge.

According to Rep. Kang Byung-won’s office, the National Assembly’s Health and Welfare Committee included the opinion to consider supplying self-test kits to the entire population in the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s supplementary budget. The proposed plan has been handed over to the Special Committee on Budget and Accounts.

The country experienced a similar shortage in the first half of 2020 when the government posed a limit on the number of masks one person can buy per week to cope with hoarding as the mask supply was unstable.

By Kan Hyeong-woo (hwkan@heraldcorp.com)
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