South Korea to expand COVID-19 vaccine drive, aims to inoculate quarter of population by June

COVID-19 vaccination in South Korea

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea unveiled on Monday plans to expand its immunisation campaign in the second quarter to include more senior citizens, health workers and other frontline professionals, with an aim to inoculate nearly a quarter of its 52 million people by June.

Starting in April, more priority groups will receive a vaccine, including more people aged 65 or above, other healthcare workers, police, fire officials, soldiers and flight attendants, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said.

South Korea began inoculating high-risk medical workers and the critically ill at the end of February as it battles a third wave of COVID-19 and seeks to achieve herd immunity by November.

"Our primary goal is to vaccinate up to 12 million people within the first half of this year," KDCA director Jeong Eun-kyeong told a briefing.

"We're seeking to focus on protecting high-risk groups, while preventing schools and care places from infection and inoculating more health and medical workers and those who play an essential role in society."

Nearly 18 million doses of vaccines will arrive in South Korea by June, including the nearly 1.7 million doses that already came into the country last month, Jeong said.

But health authorities have cut their first quarter inoculation target by more than 40% to around 750,000 after delaying the use of AstraZeneca's vaccine on people aged 65 and older last month, citing a lack of clinical trial data on them. South Korea authorised the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine for that age group last week.

More than 95% of the nearly 590,000 who were inoculated as of midnight on Sunday have received the AstraZeneca vaccine and the remainder the Pfizer vaccine, KDCA data showed.

President Moon Jae-in, aged 68, is scheduled to get an AstraZeneca shot on March 23 as part of preparations to visit the UK for a G7 summit in June, his spokesman told a separate briefing.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has invited South Korea, India and Australia to attend the meeting as guests.

The KDCA has said it would allow those who are on a key public mission to be vaccinated in advance starting later this month.

The government has secured enough supplies to cover 79 million people. It has procured COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer, Novavax, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and the COVAX global distribution scheme.

The KDCA reported 382 new cases as of Sunday, raising the total caseload to 96,017, with 1,675 deaths.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Ana Nicolaci da Costa)