(Adds GAVI comment)
By Sangmi Cha
SEOUL, July 9 (Reuters) - North Korea has rejected planned shipments of AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine that were being organised under the global COVAX distribution scheme due to concerns over side effects, a South Korean think-tank said on Friday.
COVAX has said it would provide nearly 2 million doses of AstraZeneca's shots to North Korea. The first batch had been expected in late May but was delayed amid protracted consultations, South Korea said last month.
North Korea has not reported any COVID-19 cases, a position questioned by South Korean and U.S. officials. The reclusive country has, however, imposed strict anti-virus measures, including border closures and domestic travel curbs.
According to the report by the Institute for National Security Strategy (INSS), which is affiliated with South Korea's spy agency, Pyongyang is now looking at other vaccine options.
Asked about the report, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization alliance, one of the organisations that co-leads COVAX, referred specific questions about North Korea's preferences and policies to the government in Pyongyang.
"We continue to work with DPRK authorities, as we work with all the countries we serve, to help respond to the COVID-19 pandemic," a GAVI spokesperson said, using the initials of North Korea's official name.
The INSS report also said North Korea is not keen on Chinese vaccines due to concerns they may not be that effective, but it has shown interest in shots made in Russia, hoping they would be donated free of charge.
"It's leaning towards the Russian vaccine, yet no arrangements have been made," Lee Sang-keun, director of strategic research on the Korean peninsula at INSS, told Reuters, citing unnamed sources.
On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow has offered Pyongyang vaccines on a number of occasions.
Lee added that North Korean authorities had become concerned about the AstraZeneca vaccine after reports of rare but serious blood clotting events among some people who received it.
While North Korea allowed its diplomats overseas to receive COVID-19 shots starting at the end of March, it is not making attempts to secure the vaccines for internal use, INSS said. (Reporting by Sangmi Cha; Editing by Josh Smith, Edwina Gibbs and Gareth Jones)
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