By Hyonhee Shin
SEOUL (Reuters) -A shipment of coronavirus vaccines to North Korea via the global COVAX sharing programme that was expected for late May has been delayed again amid protracted consultations, South Korea's Unification Ministry said on Tuesday.
COVAX, which secures vaccines for poor countries, has said it will provide nearly 2 million doses of AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine to North Korea.
North Korea was expected to receive a first batch of the shipment in late May but discussions are still under way, said an official at the ministry, which handles North Korea affairs.
"Countries that want COVAX support are required to hold various consultations and submit some documents including an inoculation plan," the official said.
"But in North Korea's case, such consultations have been prolonged and it appears that the shipment will be made later than initially planned."
Insular and secretive North Korea has not commented on any consultations on vaccines. It has not officially confirmed any COVID-19 infections, although Seoul officials have said an outbreak there cannot be ruled out as the North had trade and people-to-people exchanges with China before closing its border early last year.
The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) alliance, which co-leads COVAX with the World Health Organization (WHO), said work is ongoing and discussions continue with North Korea, but no shipment date was finalised.
"As we get closer to a potential delivery, we'll be able to share more information on timetables," a GAVI official told Reuters.
GAVI said last month that shipments have not been made to North Korea due to its lack of "technical preparedness" and global supply shortages but could be expected later this year.
In a statement last week to the ongoing WHO annual assembly, North Korea accused unspecified countries of dominating vaccine supplies and causing a global "bottleneck" due to "national egoism."
"Some countries are procuring and storing the vaccines more than their needs ... when other countries can't even procure it," it said.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)