SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea said on Thursday it would begin COVID-19 vaccinations for the general public in the third quarter but review the use of AstraZeneca’s vaccine to the elderly because of limited efficacy data overseas.
Health authorities will expand vaccinations towards the second half of the year with an aim to reach herd immunity by November, Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) director Jeong Eun-kyeong told a news briefing.
Inoculations would begin in February starting with key groups, including around 50,000 medical workers in the front line of coronavirus treatment, the elderly and staff in nursing homes, Jeong said.
AstraZeneca denied media reports this week that its vaccine is not very effective for people over 65, saying a strong immune response to the vaccine had been shown in blood analysis of elderly trial participants.
South Korea plans to vaccinate a 1.3 million priority group in the first quarter and 9 million people over 65 years of age and remaining medical staff by the second quarter, followed by the general population starting in July.
The country has designated about 250 large indoor gyms and community halls nationwide to vaccinate people with Pfizer Inc and Moderna vaccines that require cold chain storage, an interior ministry official told reporters.
For inoculations using vaccines from AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson’s Janseen which do not require ultra cold storage, authorities designated 13,317 hospitals and clinics nationwide.
South Korea has mobilised 57 military units as well as police and fire personnel to transport and escort the vaccines for distribution.
“We plan to revise the order of the immunisation plan depending on the situation of the time of COVID-19 transmission and the timeline of vaccine arrivals,” Jeong said.
South Korea has secured 106 million doses to allow for coverage of 56 million people, more than the 52 million residents of the country.
It has deals with four drugmakers – AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen, Moderna Inc and the World Health Organization-backed global COVAX scheme.
SK bioscience, a drugmaker unit of SK Chemicals, will manage the transport of the Pfizer, J&J and AstraZeneca vaccines, Jeong said.
The KDCA reported 497 daily new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday. The total number of infections reported in the country now stands at 76,926, with the death toll of 1,386.
Nearly half of infections in South Korea over the past year were caused by cluster infections emerging from specific close-knit groups, including religious facilities and nursing homes.
Reporting by Sangmi Cha; Editing by Michael Perry