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Here’s how S. Korea plans to get to herd immunity by November

Front liners to receive first COVID-19 vaccines

KDCA chief Jung Eun-kyeong announces phased plan for vaccinating the Korean public against COVID-19 at a Thursday press briefing. (Yonhap)
KDCA chief Jung Eun-kyeong announces phased plan for vaccinating the Korean public against COVID-19 at a Thursday press briefing. (Yonhap)

The South Korean government on Thursday unveiled its long-awaited plan for vaccinating the public, with the rollout set to kick off in a few weeks.

The first doses will be offered to front-line health care workers in the Seoul area, where the active outbreaks have been concentrated, starting next month. From March, older adults and workers at long-term care homes and other congregate settings and first responders, including contact tracers, will be getting the jabs.

Next in line are adults aged 65 or older, residents of group homes and the rest of health care personnel, who can expect their inoculations in May. Then comes the turn for essential workers such as police officers, firefighters and educators and adults with medical conditions in July. Some of the high-risk medical conditions being considered for priority vaccination are diabetes and heart and lung diseases.

Koreans who are under 50 and healthy may be able to get their shots in the last few months of the year. The government vowed that all Koreans would eventually be vaccinated in phases except for pregnant women and children under 18, unless future trial results demonstrate otherwise.

Under the plan, 1.3 million people will be vaccinated by March, 9 million by June, and the rest of the 33.25 million in the following months. In other words, over 75 percent of the vaccines will be distributed in the latter half of the year.

“The government intends to carry out the COVID-19 vaccinations as planned to reach herd immunity by November,” Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency Commissioner Jung Eun-kyeong told a news briefing.

“Through the vaccinations we hope to achieve two things: to protect health and lives and to begin the journey back to normal.”

Korea has so far obtained vaccines for up to 56 million people, according to the government. Of those, the doses for 10 million people would come from AstraZeneca, 10 million from Pfizer, 20 million from Moderna, 6 million from Janssen and 10 million from the WHO-led COVAX scheme.

Extra deals with Novavax are being sought to cover some 20 million people, and possibly more in case another round of vaccinations is needed next year, the government said.

The first vaccines to arrive will be an unspecified amount of AstraZeneca’s and some through the COVAX scheme -- most likely AstraZeneca’s or Pfizer’s or both, based on Thursday’s announcement -- in late-February.

The estimated shipping schedule for the rest of the vaccines is sometime in the second quarter for Moderna’s and Janssen’s and the third quarter for Pfizer’s. In each phase, the exact amount of the vaccines to be delivered is still unknown.

Around 250 facilities would be set up across the country to handle the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, both of which use the mRNA technology, as they are more complex to store and transport. The other vaccines using the viral vector technology will be administered at around 10,000 designated clinics and hospitals.

In light of the logistical challenges, the government is holding a trial delivery run for vaccines that require low temperatures in order to stay effective. The training and education for health care workers who will administer the vaccines are also slate to start taking place in the coming weeks.

For the Pfizer vaccine, which needs to be kept extremely cold at minus 70 degrees Celsius, the government said its manufacturer will handle the supply chain all the way to the site of administration. The Moderna and Janssen vaccines, which have to be kept at minus 20 degrees Celsius, will be distributed by a local contractor.

Currently the two vaccines under review for approval here are AstraZeneca’s and Pfizer’s. The AstraZeneca vaccine is expected to be approved for use in the next couple of weeks, while the same process for Pfizer’s has just recently begun, according to the Food and Drug Safety Ministry. 

The ministry is seeking to expedite the procedures by around three months to take approximately 40 days from the standard 180 days or longer.

Those receiving the jabs will be required to rest for 15 to 30 minutes following the inoculation in case of any development of rare adverse reactions. For every 600 people being vaccinated, a team of 22 medical workers comprising at least four doctors and eight nurses will be assigned, the government said.

The vaccines will be provided free of charge for all Koreans and foreign residents, with the costs to be financed via the National Health Insurance Service and government funding. Whether those without state health insurance subscriptions will be included in the free coverage has yet to be decided.

The pandemic has left at least 76,926 people infected with COVID-19 in Korea, and led to more than 1,300 deaths, according to the latest KDCA situation report.

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)

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