(ATTN: RECASTS headline, lead; UPDATES with more info throughout; CHANGE photos)
By Kim Han-joo
SEOUL, Feb. 26 (Yonhap) -- South Korea started its public inoculation program against the new coronavirus Friday over one year after its first confirmed case, seeking for people to return to their normal daily lives and attain herd immunity by November.
More than 5,000 health care workers and patients aged under 65 at long-term care facilities started receiving the first doses of the novel coronavirus vaccines at the start of the nationwide inoculation rollout.
Health authorities earlier announced they will not designate a specific person to get the first jab as part of the long-awaited inoculation program in the country, where COVID-19 cases are nearing 90,000.
The country's first person to get the first shot of British-Swedish pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca and Oxford University's full two-dose regimen was a 61-year-old health care worker from a nursing facility in Seoul.
The nationwide distribution of AstraZeneca's vaccines began Thursday for some 289,000 health care workers and patients aged under 65 at sanatoriums, nursing facilities and rehabilitation facilities. The first vaccinations will be completed in March, according to health authorities.
The first batch of AstraZeneca bottles are enough to provide jabs to 785,000 people. The vaccine doses were produced at a local plant by SK Bioscience Co. under a manufacturing partnership deal.
AstraZeneca's vaccines will be delivered to a total of 1,900 long-term care hospitals and public health centers across the country for the next four days.
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.
Starting Saturday, the first group of some 55,000 medical workers at hospitals for virus patients will receive Pfizer vaccines, which are part of the World Health Organization's global vaccine COVAX Facility project.
The first group includes 300 doctors, nurses and other health professionals treating COVID-19 patients in the greater Seoul area, who will receive the first jab of Pfizer vaccines at a state-run vaccination facility at the state-run National Medical Center in central Seoul, the authorities said.
Pfizer shots will then be administered at four other state-run vaccination facilities. The authorities plan to build 120 such facilities at general hospitals, gymnasiums and other kinds of government sites.
Health authorities plan to complete inoculations with the first batch of Pfizer products by March 20.
Health authorities have repeatedly dispelled concerns over the safety issues surrounding AstraZeneca's vaccine, after the government's decision to temporarily exclude its administration to people aged 65 or older until it receives additional clinical trial data.
They pointed out that the product was approved by some 50 countries and by the World Health Organization for emergency use and that there have been no reports of serious side effects from countries that have begun using them.
Controversies arose globally over the use of AstraZeneca's vaccine for seniors as there is not enough data to back its efficacy in older people. Several countries either excluded or postponed inoculating seniors with the product.
Health authorities also have said the government will provide adequate compensation for serious side or adverse effects from the scheduled shots. The government will also cover costs for hospital stays and other kinds of treatment costs.
A benefit of up to 430 million won (US$388,000) will be provided if someone is severely disabled or dies as a result of taking a COVID-19 vaccine, they said.
South Korea earlier announced it aims to get 70 percent of its population inoculated by September, with herd immunity here predicted to be created by November.
The government has already secured enough COVID-19 vaccines to inoculate 79 million people under COVAX and separate contracts with foreign drug firms.
The rollout comes at a critical time as the country strives to curb the virus spread. The country's daily new coronavirus cases rose slightly above 400 on Friday, raising the total caseload to 88,922.
Some health experts also showed concern over the goal, saying at least 90 percent of people should be inoculated to achieve herd immunity.
Also, a recent opinion poll showed that less than half of South Koreans are willing to receive COVID-19 vaccine shots immediately, without waiting for further reports on those vaccines' effects.
In the survey conducted on 1,020 people aged 18 or over by the Korea Society Opinion Institute, only 45.8 percent said they are willing to be vaccinated "right away" when their turn for COVID-19 vaccine shots comes.
Another 45.7 percent responded they will delay their vaccinations to "watch the situation" regarding the vaccines' effects, while 5.1 percent said they will refuse vaccine shots entirely, according to the poll result. The remaining 3.4 percent said they are not sure.
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