SEOUL, March 5 (UPI) — South Korea’s Ministry of Food and Drug Safety granted approval for the use of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech on Friday, making it the second vaccine to be greenlit as the country ramps up its immunization efforts.
A final committee including outside experts approved the two-dose Pfizer vaccine regimen on the condition that a final report from an ongoing clinical trial is submitted, the ministry said in a statement.
The committee confirmed the assessments of two previous expert panels, saying that the vaccine has an efficacy rate of 95% and is safe for adults aged 16 and above based on the results of previous multinational clinical trials.
The Pfizer approval follows the go-ahead for the vaccine developed by British-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca and Oxford University, which was approved last month and has been used to inoculate patients and workers at long-term care facilities in the first wave of South Korea’s vaccination rollout.
A total of 221,944 people have received the first dose of the two-shot AstraZeneca vaccine since inoculations began on Feb. 26, the Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced on Friday. The AstraZeneca vaccine is being manufactured under contract by local firm SK Bioscience.
Health authorities said that they are investigating seven cases of deaths shortly after patients received the AstraZeneca vaccine to determine if there is any causal relationship.
Another 3,909 frontline health workers have already received a dose of the Pfizer vaccine, which was supplied under a special import exemption by the COVAX facility, a World Health Organization-led alliance of governments and manufacturers. South Korea has received 117,000 Pfizer doses from COVAX, good for 58,500 full inoculations.
The South Korean government has a direct contract with Pfizer to receive enough vaccines for roughly 23 million people. Around 1 million doses are expected to arrive later this month, with an additional 6 million coming in the second quarter of the year, according to the KDCA.
Health officials have faced criticism for being slow to secure vaccine supplies and begin a rollout, but the government is aiming to inoculate 70% of its population by September and to achieve herd immunity by November.
In addition to the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines, South Korea has orders in place with Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and Novavax to supply the country enough combined doses for 79 million people, far more than necessary for its population of 52 million.
The ministry granted approval for the Pfizer vaccine on the condition that it is stored at ultra-cold temperatures ranging from -90 to -60 degrees Celsius. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, however, gave approval last week for the vaccine to be transported and stored for up to two weeks in normal freezers.
On Friday, South Korea recorded 398 new COVID-19 infections, raising the country’s total caseload to 91,638, the KDCA reported.