South Korea said on Tuesday it had signed deals to provide coronavirus vaccines for 44 million people next year but it would not hurry inoculation to allow more time to observe potential side effects.
Its cautious approach comes as the country of almost 52 million people battles surging COVID-19 infections that health authorities say threaten to overwhelm the medical system.
Other countries are moving ahead to grant emergency use approval for the vaccines in a bid to contain virus transmission. Britain began rolling out Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday, and the United States and India have launched regulatory reviews on some vaccine candidates.
The South Korean government has arranged to buy 20 million doses each from AstraZeneca Plc, Pfizer Inc, and Moderna Inc, and another 4 million doses from Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen, enough to cover up to 34 million people, Health Minister Park Neung-hoo told a briefing.
Additional doses for 10 million people would be procured through the World Health Organization’s global vaccine project, known as COVAX, he added.
Despite the current surge in cases, South Korea’s relative success in tamping down previous waves meant the government did not need to rush a vaccine, Park said.
“We don’t see the need to hurriedly begin vaccination without ensuring that the vaccines’ risks have been verified,” he said.
Shipments would begin no later than March, and vaccinations may start in the first half of next year depending on factors such as observations in other countries about their safety, the spread of COVID-19 and public demand, the health ministry said.
“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,” Park said.
The government allocated an additional 1.3 trillion won ($1.2 billion) to next year’s budget for vaccines.
The first vaccines would likely go to medical workers, elderly and medically vulnerable people, and social workers.
The government will seek to set up new storage to ensure the vaccines are kept at the right temperatures, with the Pfizer product required to be refrigerated at minus 70 Celsius degrees (minus 94 Fahrenheit degrees).
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency reported 594 new COVID-19 infections as of midnight Monday, bringing the country’s total to 38,755, with 552 deaths.
South Korea’s previous two waves of infections were largely focused around a handful of facilities or events, while the new surge is being driven by smaller, harder-to-trace clusters in and around the densely populated capital city of Seoul.
Vice Health Minister Kang Do-tae said the government had been unable to trace the origin of 26% of all cases.
“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.