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(2nd LD) S. Korea begins vaccinations amid hopes for herd immunity by Nov.

National 14:50 February 26, 2021

(ATTN: RECASTS headline, lead; UPDATES with more info throughout; CHANGES photos; COMBINES with a story slugged Pfizer vaccine-efficacy)
By Kim Han-joo

SEOUL, Feb. 26 (Yonhap) -- South Korea started its first inoculation program against the new coronavirus Friday over one year after its first confirmed case, as health authorities hope to attain herd immunity by November.

More than 5,200 health care workers and patients aged under 65 at long-term care facilities across the country started receiving their first shots of the two-dose vaccine regimen developed by British-Swedish pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca and Oxford University.

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 was a 61-year-old health care worker from a nursing facility, who got her shot at a public health center located in northern Seoul.

A 61-year-old health care worker from a nursing facility receives the country's first COVID-19 vaccine at a public health center in Seoul on Feb. 26, 2021. (Yonhap)

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.

A citizen (R) receives a shot of AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine at a public health center in Incheon, 50 km west of Seoul, on Feb. 26, 2021, when the country kicked off its nationwide vaccinations at 9 a.m. More than 5,000 medical workers and patients aged under 65 at long-term care facilities were the vaccine's first recipients. (Yonhap)

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.

The first shipment of Pfizer products arrived at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, earlier in the day, and were shipped to five facilities in the wider Seoul area.

Health authorities plan to complete inoculations with the first batch of Pfizer products by March 20.

Meanwhile, a panel of experts said Pfizer products should be eligible for youths. The panel's review is the second step of three separate independent evaluations before the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety gives the final approval.

The panel advised the ministry to approve Pfizer's two full-dose regimen, saying it showed a more than 95 percent efficacy rate, including for those aged 16 and 17, and elders aged 65 and older.

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.

A Korean Air plane unloads the first shipment of Pfizer Inc.'s COVID-19 vaccine at Incheon airport, west of Seoul, on Feb. 26, 2021. The shipment of 58,500 doses via the COVAX Facility is earmarked for an initial group of health workers in the first phase of South Korea's vaccination program that began the same day. (Yonhap)

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.

khj@yna.co.kr
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