(ATTN: UPDATES lead, 2nd para; ADDS more info in paras 5-9)
By Kim Han-joo
SEOUL, Feb. 25 (Yonhap) -- Trucks packed with the first of some 1.57 million doses of coronavirus vaccines were distributed across South Korea on Thursday as long-term care hospitals and public health centers rushed to prepare for the country's ambitious vaccination program.
The nationwide distribution of the AstraZeneca vaccine for some 785,000 people, mostly health care workers and patients at nursing homes, came as the country is set to kick off the free inoculation campaign Friday.
On the first day of the five-day logistics plan, a total of 56 sealed trucks carrying 163,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccines were among the first batch that fanned out to nearly 600 facilities, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).
The vaccine doses were produced at a local plant by SK Bioscience Co. under a manufacturing partnership deal with British-Swedish pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca.
Health authorities originally planned to supply 1.5 million doses of AstraZeneca's vaccines, but following additional approval from the drug safety ministry, it added 70,000 doses.
The KDCA said the first-day vaccine transport was delayed about two hours from its original schedule as officials had to thoroughly check the shipment process.
For vaccines allocated in Jeju Island, health authorities had to retrieve all of them as they were exposed to temperatures beyond their recommended range during the delivery.
AstraZeneca's vaccines must be kept at temperatures of 2-8 degrees Celsius, but during the transport, the storage temperature went below 1.5 degrees Celsius. The KDCA said it replaced the vaccines and sent them to Jeju Island.
The KDCA said it later decided to use the retrieved vaccines since its inspection result showed that their quality had not been damaged.
Under the vaccination scheme, some 289,000 health care workers and patients aged under 65 at sanatoriums, nursing facilities and rehabilitation facilities will receive the first jab of the full two-dose regime.
On Friday, a total of 5,266 health care workers and patients at 213 long-term care facilities will receive the first shot, the KDCA said. Other facilities will also complete the first inoculation by March.
The AstraZeneca vaccine is deemed more convenient for mass inoculations as its storage temperature is 2 to 8 C, compared with the vaccine by U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. that requires ultra-cold chain storage.
Meanwhile, Pfizer's vaccine will be offered to a total of 55,000 medical staff members treating COVID-19 patients starting on Saturday, the authorities said.
Pfizer's vaccine is provided under the World Health Organization's global vaccine COVAX Facility project, and the shots will first be given at five state-run vaccination facilities as the products require ultra-cold chain storage.
Health authorities also plan to complete inoculations with the first batch of Pfizer products by March 20.
South Korea hopes to attain herd immunity by November after inoculating 70 percent of its population by September.
On Thursday, the country reported 396 more virus cases, raising the total caseload to 88,516, the KDCA said. Thursday's daily caseload marks a slight drop from 440 tallied the previous day. The figures hovered above 600 last week before falling below 500 over the weekend and under 400 earlier this week on fewer tests.
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