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South Korea seeks to reassure ageing residents after raising COVID-19 vaccine questions

SEOUL (Reuters) - With one of the fastest ageing populations in the world, South Korea has sought to reassure elderly residents as it said it would push ahead with AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine but is still examining its efficacy for people older than 65.

FILE PHOTO: Commuters cross a zebra crossing, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Seoul, South Korea, February 3, 2021. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

A panel of South Korean advisers has urged caution over the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine for people older than 65, citing a lack of data, the food and drug safety ministry said last week.

The government confirmed on Monday it would go ahead with plans to distribute the company’s vaccine, but that regulators will decide later this week whether to provide it to older citizens.

Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) director Jeong Eun-kyeong said some 1.5 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccines, enough for some 750,000 people, will arrive in the final week of February.

AstraZeneca vaccines will be supplied to South Korea starting on Feb. 24, local news outlet Yonhap reported later in the day citing the government.

Nearly 16 percent of South Korea’s population is 65 years or older. Several European nations have said they plan to restrict the vaccine to younger people, or are considering doing so, because of insufficient data on its efficacy in the elderly.

AstraZeneca denied media reports that its vaccine was not very effective for people over 65, saying a strong immune response to the vaccine had been shown in blood analysis of elderly trial participants.

In an attempt to address public concerns, the KDCA held a public question-and-answer event on Monday where health officials sought to reassure residents.

“If you ask me if I would let my 80 something mother get an AstraZeneca vaccine, yes, I would recommend that she receive any vaccine that’s available,” said Nam Jae-hwan, a professor at the Catholic University of Korea in Seoul, who spoke at the briefing as an advisor to the KDCA.

Plans call for healthcare workers and the elderly to be vaccinated as soon as this month, with the goal of reaching herd immunity for South Korea’s 52 million people by November.

The KDCA reported 289 new daily coronavirus cases as of midnight Sunday, the lowest since late November.

The government on Saturday eased curfews on restaurants and other businesses outside the capital Seoul amid a public backlash over tight curbs to contain COVID-19.

Reporting by Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Cynthia Kim; Editing by Ana Nicolaci da Costa, Kirsten Donovan and Ed Osmond

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