SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea has signed deals with Pfizer Inc and Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen to import coronavirus vaccines to cover up to 16 million people, as it grapples with the third wave of the pandemic, the prime minister said on Thursday.
The government has faced growing public pressure over their COVID-19 vaccine procurement plans as the country reported its second-highest daily tally of cases on Wednesday.
Pfizer’s two-dose vaccine, developed with German partner BioNTech, will be enough to cover 10 million people and its shipment is expected in the third quarter of 2021.
“We are mobilising the entire national capabilities to bring in the shipments within the second quarter,” Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun told a televised briefing. “The negotiation is underway.”
Chung said the doses from Janssen – J&J’s pharmaceuticals division – were added from the initial amount for 4 million people to 6 million and will be ready for inoculation from the second quarter.
The Pfizer and Janssen deals are part of a government plan to buy enough doses from four drugmakers and the global COVAX initiative, backed by the World Health Organization, that will allow immunisation of at least 85% of South Korea’s population of 52 million.
The government had already signed a deal with AstraZeneca Plc, which will be shipped as early as January next year, and is in final talks with Moderna Inc to sign a deal in January to secure 20 million doses.
Health authorities will start a public vaccination programme as early as February next year, which will be completed around November, before the start of the flu season, Yang Dong-gyo, a senior official at the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA), told a briefing.
The government had allocated an additional 1.3 trillion won ($1.2 billion) to next year’s budget for vaccines.
The KDCA reported 985 new coronavirus cases as of Wednesday midnight, bringing the nation’s tally to 53,533, with 756 deaths.
South Korea has ramped up testing to more than 55,000 people a day, compared with roughly 16,000 a day in September, to track down cases from unknown origin and asymptomatic cases.
Authorities have shut down all ski resorts and winter tourist spots and banned gatherings of more than four in a bid to stop the spread during the Christmas and New Year holidays.
Asia’s fourth largest economy won international plaudits earlier this year when it quickly tamped down outbreaks with aggressive, high-tech contact tracing, but officials acknowledged over-confidence that left them straining to contain a third wave.
(Reporting by Sangmi Cha; Editing by Leslie Adler & Shri Navaratnam)