SEOUL, Feb. 23 (UPI) -- South Korea will begin rolling out vaccinations against the COVID-19 pandemic on Friday with first doses going to workers and patients at nursing homes and other high-risk facilities, health officials confirmed Tuesday.
Starting at 9 a.m. Friday, healthcare workers and patients under 65 will begin receiving the first dose of the vaccine developed by British-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca and Oxford University.
Health officials decided last week to withhold the AstraZeneca vaccine from patients aged 65 and older pending further clinical data on its efficacy, reversing an earlier decision. The delay has raised additional questions about South Korea's ability to hit its target of herd immunity by November.
Enough doses to inoculate 750,000 people will begin shipping on Wednesday from a factory in the southeastern city of Andong, where the AstraZeneca vaccine is being manufactured under contract by local firm SK Bioscience, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Authority said.
Another round of inoculations using the vaccine by U.S. pharmaceutical company Pfizer will begin on Saturday, initially targeting healthcare workers treating COVID-19 patients.
South Korea is receiving 117,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, enough for 58,500 patients on the two-shot regimen, through the COVAC Facility, a World Health Organization-led alliance of governments and manufacturers with the aim to provide equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines.
The shots, which received special regulatory approval earlier this month, require ultra-cold chain storage and will initially be distributed at five government-run facilities, the KDCA said.
A South Korean panel of experts on Tuesday took the first step toward a wider emergency approval of the Pfizer vaccine, recommending its usage for adults above the age of 16.
An advisory panel reviewed global clinical results of the Pfizer vaccine and found it showed a more than 95% efficacy rate, the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety announced on Tuesday.
The panel is the first of three independent bodies to report to the ministry, which is planning to make its final recommendation on Friday.
South Korea has a deal in place with Pfizer to purchase enough vaccines to inoculate 13 million people. Additional orders with Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and Novavax will give the country doses for 79 million people, far more than necessary for its population of 52 million.
Nearly 94% of the people eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in the first phase of the rollout are willing to be inoculated, the KDCA said, according to a survey it conducted of 367,000 healthcare workers and patients.
However, a public opinion poll released Monday showed less than half of all adults were willing to get vaccinated right away. Only 45.8% said they are willing to be vaccinated as soon they are eligible, according to the survey by the Korea Society Opinion Institute, while another 45.7% said they would delay vaccinations in order to monitor initial results.
South Korea is aiming to inoculate 70% of its population by September and is looking to achieve herd immunity by November, although some leading health experts have questioned the ability of officials to pull off the logistics and have criticized the government for being slow to procure vaccines.
The country reported 357 new COVID-19 infections on Tuesday, bringing its total caseload to 87,681, the KDCA announced.