South Korean officials will speed up efforts to launch a public coronavirus vaccination programme as the country on Monday revealed it had detected its first cases of the virus variant linked to the rapid rise in cases in Britain.
The new variant, thought to be more infectious than others currently circulating, was found in a family who arrived in South Korea from London on December 22, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said on Monday.
The three have been in isolation since testing positive, the KDCA statement said.
The new strain of the virus emerged earlier this month in Britain and has already reached several European countries, as well as Canada, Jordan and Japan.
It prompted more than 50 countries to impose travel restrictions on Britain, including South Korea, which has barred flights from Britain until the end of the year.
Overall, the KDCA reported 808 new cases as of midnight on Sunday (03:00 GMT). The country reported a record 1,241 infections on Friday.
Authorities cautioned that the drop may be due to less testing done over the weekend and the Christmas holiday and said on Sunday they would be extending social-distancing measures until early January.
South Korea’s government has faced mounting domestic criticism over its vaccine procurement and roll-out plans, which call for the first vaccinations to begin in the first quarter of next year, months after places such as the United States and the European Union.
Anger at the vaccine plan has undermined support for President Moon Jae-in, whose disapproval rating has risen to an all-time high of nearly 60 percent, pollster Realmeter said on Monday.
Regulators will shorten the period required to approve vaccines and treatments from and average of 180 days to as little as 40 days, the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety announced on Sunday.
An additional approval process for the distribution and sale of vaccines, which usually takes several months, will be shortened to about 20 days, the ministry said.
Medical workers and elderly residents will begin receiving the vaccinations in February and plans to vaccinate the broader public are accelerating, presidential chief of staff Noh Young-min said on Sunday.
“The government is doing all it can to advance this timeframe and is also making progress,” he said.
South Korea has said it plans to buy enough doses to eventually vaccinate 46 million people or more than 85 percent of its population.
Noh said authorities expected South Korea’s population to reach a level of herd immunity through the vaccines as fast or faster than many other countries.
South Korea has reported a total of 57,680 coronavirus cases, with 819 deaths.