By Kim Han-joo
SEOUL, March 5 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's drug safety agency on Friday approved the vaccine for the novel coronavirus developed by U.S. pharmaceutical company Pfizer Inc. as the country is pushing for the COVID-19 inoculation campaign.
The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety allowed use of Pfizer's two full-dose regimen following three separate independent evaluations on the efficacy and safety.
Pfizer products for about 23 million people, under a direct contract between the pharmaceutical firm and the Seoul government, are expected to start arriving here later this month.
The ministry said Pfizer's two full-dose regimen showed more than a 95 percent efficacy rate, including for people aged between 16 and 17, and aged 65 and older.
Despite the ministry's decision, it is unclear whether youths are eligible to receive Pfizer vaccines as local health authorities here exclude inoculating people younger than 18.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) is expected to convene a meeting later to decide on whether to include youths for the inoculation with the Pfizer vaccine.
The approval is separate from Pfizer vaccines for more than 56,000 front-line medical workers that were provided earlier as part of the World Health Organization's global vaccine COVAX Facility project.
Doctors, nurses and other health professionals treating COVID-19 patients in the greater Seoul area started receiving their first shots of Pfizer's regimen at a state-run vaccination facility in central Seoul last week.
Pfizer products through the COVAX earlier received "special import" approval from the ministry.
The ministry also said it has not yet started reviewing whether to allow storing the Pfizer vaccine at higher temperatures for two weeks, citing that further data is needed for the review.
Earlier, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it will allow Pfizer vaccines to be transported and stored for up to two weeks at conventional freezer temperatures instead of the ultra-cold conditions.
South Korea began its long-awaited COVID-19 vaccination campaign on Feb. 26 and more people are expected to receive their first shots despite controversies over recent reports of deaths.
A total of 225,853 people had been administered with their first shots as of midnight, which accounts for 0.43 percent of the country's 52 million population, the KDCA said.
Of the total, 221,944 health care workers and patients at long-term care facilities received the first jabs of the two-dose vaccine regimen developed by British-Swedish pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca and Oxford University, the KDCA said
The KDCA said 59.4 percent of inoculation priority groups for AstraZeneca's vaccine have been inoculated, which is far faster than the rollout plan announced earlier.
Meanwhile, 6.95 percent of 56,363 people scheduled to receive Pfizer vaccines were inoculated. The group includes doctors, nurses and other health professionals treating COVID-19 patients in the greater Seoul area.
On Friday, the country reported 398 more COVID-19 cases, raising the total caseload to 91,638, the KDCA said.