|President Moon Jae-in visits SK Bioscience's plant located in Andong, North Gyeongsang Province, a contract-manufacturer of AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccines, Wednesday. / Yonhap|
By Lee Hyo-jin
Korea is gearing up to start COVID-19 vaccinations next month, with the first batch of vaccines expected to arrive in the country in the coming weeks.
The first shipment of Pfizer vaccines for 50,000 people is likely to arrive in early February, health authorities said Thursday. It will be the first batch of doses for 10 million people Korea has secured through COVAX, the global initiative for coronavirus vaccine development and distribution.
As the government speeds up its plans to start inoculations, which were initially scheduled for late February, all eyes are on whether vaccine injections will be available ahead of the Lunar New Year holidays starting Feb. 11.
The government has divided the vaccination program into several steps, each managed by related governmental bodies.
Once the vaccines win approval from the Ministry of Food and Drug safety, they will be delivered into the country by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport.
The Defense Ministry will manage storage and distribution to 250 vaccination centers across the country, which the Ministry of Interior and Safety is currently preparing in cooperation with local governments.
The interior ministry plans to install one vaccination site per city, county, and district, and two more in each region with a population of more than 500,000.
Considering that about 600 people are estimated to visit the centers every day, the venues must be well-ventilated and wide enough to maintain social distancing. The facilities also need to be equipped with their own power generators in order to safely store the vaccines.
Cold-chain systems must be established not only for logistics, but also at each vaccination center. Pfizer's RNA (mRNA) vaccine can be the trickiest to handle, as it needs to be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius. Moderna's and Janssen's vaccines need to be stored at minus 20 degrees Celsius.
The interior ministry is currently reviewing 150 facilities as possible candidates to be used as vaccination centers.
"Currently, we have 93 gyms, 30 movie theaters, 12 medical institutions, 10 parks and five government centers on our list of candidates. After further discussions with the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA), we will announce a detailed list early next week," said Park Jong-hyun, the deputy spokesman at the ministry, during a briefing held on Thursday.
Meanwhile, according to the KDCA, Korea reported 346 daily new coronavirus cases on Thursday, including 314 local transmissions, raising the total caseload to 74,262.