By Sangmi Cha
SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea launched its COVID-19 inoculation campaign on Friday, with shots to be administered in some 200 nursing homes, in an effort that officials call the first step in returning the country to more normal life.
The first doses of AstraZeneca's vaccine began to be given at 9 a.m.(0000 GMT) to nursing home workers and some patients at facilities across the country of about 52 million.
By 6 p.m. local time (0900 GMT), 16,813 people had received their first doses, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said.
On Saturday, authorities plan to start giving the first of 117,000 doses of the vaccine developed by Pfizer Inc and BioNTech SE supplied through COVAX, an international COVID-19 vaccine-sharing programme, to about 55,000 healthcare workers in coronavirus treatment facilities.
The national pharmaceutical panel on Friday recommended the government approve that vaccine. Authorities will wait, however, for a final review committee before deciding whether to grant approval, which would allow the country to start using doses beyond those supplied by COVAX.
Despite complaints over a slow start, and debate over the efficacy of AstraZeneca's vaccine for older people, surveys show wide interest among South Koreans in being vaccinated.
Some health experts have raised doubts about the country's ability to stick to its ambitious goal of protecting 10 million high-risk people by July, on its way to reaching herd immunity, defined as at least a 70% vaccine take-up, by November.
On Friday, shots will be administered to 5,266 nursing home staffers and patients in 213 facilities, and those in 292 nursing hospitals, within five days, the KDCA said, at least 272,000 of the nursing home staffers and patients under 65 by March, and both doses by May. Although in-house doctors will administer the shots to those in nursing hospitals, doctors will be dispatched to care homes to give the vaccines.
After completing registration this month, more than 350,000 high-risk healthcare workers and around 78,000 first responders will in March begin to get the AstraZeneca shots, co-developed by Oxford University.
President Moon Jae-in visited one of the vaccination centres in Seoul and oversaw the inoculation process.
Despite the concern, a government poll showed on Thursday that 94% of 367,000 healthcare workers aged 64 or younger in priority groups said they were ready to take the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said authorities would extend social distancing rules by two weeks nationwide, including a ban on private gatherings larger than four people, to blunt coronavirus surge.
Chung warned against large outbreaks before the general public begins to receive the vaccine.
"Sporadic cluster infections continue in our everyday life, such as in workplaces, hospitals, and family gatherings," Chung told a government meeting on Friday. "We have a long way to go to herd immunity."
Under the current level of distancing rules, cafes, restaurants and gyms can stay open until 10 p.m. (1300 GMT), and religious services and audiences at sporting events are limited to 20% and 10% capacity, respectively.
A proposal to revamp social distancing guidelines will come next week, health ministry official Son Young-rae told a briefing.
South Korea reported 406 new virus infections by Thursday. The country has so far recorded 88,922 infections and a death toll of 1,585.
(Reporting by Sangmi Cha; Editing by Richard Pullin and Gerry Doyle)