The first doses will arrive in March, but officials will wait and see how vaccines work in other countries to ensure safety.
South Korea has ordered COVID-19 vaccines for 88% 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 vaccination project. health, known as COVAX.
Tuesday’s announcement comes as South Korea works to contain its third and largest wave of coronavirus infections – a resurgence that authorities have described as a “terrible crisis” that threatens to overwhelm the healthcare system from the country.
Park Neung-hoo, South Korea’s Minister of Health, said the government had arranged to buy 20 million doses each from AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna, and four million more doses from Janssen of Johnson & Johnson, which will be enough to cover as many 34 million people.
Additional doses for 10 million people would be provided by COVAX, he added.
“We initially planned to secure vaccines for 30 million people, but decided to purchase more, as there is uncertainty about the success of candidate vaccines and competition is intense between countries for early purchases,” did he declare.
Seoul was not currently in talks to buy vaccines from Russia or China, Park said.
Shipments of the vaccine would begin no later than March, but authorities would observe how vaccines have worked in other countries for several months to ensure safety.
Widespread immunization is expected to start in the second half of next year, with medical workers, the elderly and medically vulnerable people, as well as social workers on the front lines.
The Yonhap news agency said the South Korean government has already signed a deal with AstraZeneca and plans to finalize contracts with the other companies later this month.
Park said the government did not need to rush a vaccine despite the current surge in cases due to South Korea’s relative success in controlling previous waves.
“We don’t see the need to start vaccination in a hurry without ensuring that the risks of the vaccines have been verified,” he said.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reported 594 new cases of the coronavirus as of midnight Monday, bringing the country’s total to 38,755, with 552 deaths.
Unlike South Korea’s two previous waves of infections, which were largely concentrated around a handful of facilities or events, the new wave is driven by smaller, harder-to-trace clusters in and around the densely populated capital of Seoul.
Vice Minister of Health Kang Do-tae said the government had not been able to trace the origin of 26% of all cases, and the rate of people who tested positive had nearly quadrupled in a month at about 4%.
“If social distancing is not properly implemented, epidemics in the greater Seoul area would lead to greater transmission across the country,” Kang said at a meeting of health officials according to a transcript from the Ministry of Health.
Health officials have predicted that daily cases will hover between 550 and 750 this week and could reach 900 next week.
If those predictions are correct, Kang said the country’s healthcare system could collapse.
“There could be a dangerous situation where it becomes difficult not only to treat patients with COVID-19, but also to provide essential medical services,” he said.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Monday called for expanding coronavirus testing and more in-depth tracing, with infections continuing to rise despite the imposition of increasingly restrictive social distancing measures.