South Korea orders COVID-19 vaccines for 88 percent of population

First doses to arrive in March, but officials will wait and see how vaccines work in other countries to ensure safety.

Vials labelled 'COVID-19 Coronavirus Vaccine' are placed on dry ice in this illustration from December 4, 2020 [Dado Ruvic/Illustration/ Reuters]

South Korea has ordered COVID-19 vaccines for 88 percent of its population, or 44 million people, the government said, announcing deals with four pharmaceutical companies as well as the World Health Organization’s global vaccine project, known as COVAX.

Tuesday’s announcement came as South Korea struggles to contain its third and largest wave of coronavirus infections – a resurgence that authorities have described as a “dire crisis” that threatens to overwhelm the country’s healthcare system.

Park Neung-hoo, South Korea’s minister of health, said the government has arranged to buy 20 million doses each from AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna, and a further four million doses from Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen, which will be enough to cover as many as 34 million people.

Additional doses for 10 million people would be procured through COVAX, he added.

“We had initially planned to secure vaccines for 30 million people but decided to purchase more, as there is uncertainty over the success of the vaccine candidates and the competition is intense among countries for early purchases,” he said.

Seoul was not currently in talks to buy vaccines from either Russia or China, Park said.

Shipments of the vaccine would begin no later than March, but authorities would observe how the vaccines worked in other countries for several months to ensure safety.

Widespread vaccination was likely to begin in the second half of next year, with medical workers, the elderly and medically vulnerable people, as well as social workers first in line.

The Yonhap news agency said the South Korean government has already signed a deal with AstraZeneca and plans to finalise contracts with the other companies later this month.

Park said the government did not need to rush a vaccine through despite the current surge in cases due to South Korea’s relative success in controlling previous waves.

“We don’t see the need to hurriedly begin vaccination without ensuring that the vaccines’ risks have been verified,” he said.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reported 594 new coronavirus cases as of midnight on Monday, bringing the country’s total to 38,755, with 552 deaths.

Unlike South Korea’s previous two waves of infections, which were largely focused around a handful of facilities or events, the new wave is being driven by smaller, harder-to-trace clusters in and around the densely populated capital city of Seoul.

People wearing masks walk at a railway station amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Seoul, South Korea, November 30, 2020 [File: Kim Hong-ji/ Reuters]

Vice Health Minister Kang Do-tae said the government had been unable to trace the origin of 26 percent of all cases, and the rate of people who tested positive spiked nearly fourfold within a month to about 4 percent.

“If social distancing is not implemented properly, outbreaks in the greater Seoul area would lead to greater transmissions nationwide,” Kang told a meeting of health officials according to a transcript from the health ministry.

Health authorities predicted daily cases would hover between 550 and 750 this week and possibly spike to as much as 900 next week.

If such predictions are accurate, Kang said the country’s health system may collapse.

“There could be a dangerous situation where it becomes difficult not only to treat COVID-19 patients but also to provide essential medical services,” he said.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in called on Monday for expanded coronavirus testing and more thorough tracing as infections continued to rise despite the imposition of increasingly restrictive social-distancing measures.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies