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South Korea strikes COVID-19 vaccine deals for 23 million people as roll-out set to start slowly

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea has arranged to buy coronavirus vaccines for 23 million more people, its prime minister said on Tuesday, a day after authorities decided to scale back initial vaccination plans, citing delays and efficacy concerns.

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Preparing for an inoculation drive that is set to begin on Feb.26, South Korea had already secured supply agreements for enough doses for 56 million, though it has a population of 52 million.

But the vaccination programme is set to get off to a slower start, as some of the vaccines acquired have not yet proven sufficiently effective against new strains of COVID-19, while some manufacturers may not be able to deliver on time due to production problems.

To overcome those issues, South Korea has struck additional deals with Novavax Inc for enough vaccines to cover 20 million people and with Pfizer to cover a further 3 million, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said, making the total supply enough to cover 79 million people.

“The government has been working to bring in sufficient early supplies, but there is growing uncertainty over our plan for the first half due to production issues with global drugmakers and international competition to adopt more vaccines,” he told a televised meeting.

South Korea aims to begin by inoculating healthcare workers and the elderly. But authorities said on Monday they would not use AstraZeneca vaccines on people aged 65 and older, reversing an earlier decision, because of insufficient efficacy data.

Aside from AstraZeneca, South Korea has also reached agreements with COVAX, Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson for the supply of their vaccines.

The government has cut its first-quarter vaccination target from 1.3 million to less than 760,000.

U.S.-based Novavax issued a statement that it has signed a license agreement with South Korea manufacturer SK Bioscience to produce 40 million doses of its vaccines for South Korea and significantly boost production capacity. Two doses of the Novavax vaccine are needed per person.

SK Bioscience said it has exclusive rights to manufacture and sell the vaccine in South Korea and also secured rights to sell it in several Southeast Asian countries.

The director of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA), Jeong Eun-kyeong, said the reduced first-quarter target was not expected to affect the goal of achieving “herd immunity” by November, though some independent health experts doubt whether it can be done so fast.

The additional Pfizer deal for 6 million doses, with two needed per person, was intended to help meet that goal, and the U.S. drugmaker agreed to move up the shipment date for another 1 million doses to the second quarter, Chung said.

The KDCA reported 457 additional coronavirus cases as of midnight on Monday, as the daily tally rebounds to the 400s in four days amid increased testing following last week’s Lunar New Year holidays.

South Korea’s total infections rose to 84,325 with 1,534 deaths.

Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Tom Hogue and Gerry Doyle & Simon Cameron-Moore

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