South Korea's Moon under fire for vaccine plans as COVID-19 cases surge

From Sangmi Cha
SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean President Moon Jae-in faced mounting public pressure over his COVID-19 vaccine procurement plans on Wednesday as the country struggled to contain a third wave of the pandemic and reported its second highest daily case count.
Domestic media have labeled the government's approach to securing newly developed COVID-19 vaccines as too relaxed and overly dependent on locally produced footage, which will take more time than overseas options.
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According to a survey by research firm Realmeter, six in ten South Koreans believe the urgency of COVID-19 vaccines should take precedence over safety and that given the rapid rise in new cases, vaccinations should start as soon as possible.
South Korea had 1,092 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday, bringing the national number to 52,550 with 739 deaths, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said. The record of 1,097 cases was logged on Sunday.
Late Tuesday, Moon's office said a public vaccination program would "not start too late". The government previously said vaccinations could start as early as February.
Health officials expressed concern about the public's perception of the vaccination program as a global competition and instead emphasized the importance of confirming the safety of the shots.
The United States and the United Kingdom, which suffer from much higher cases and death rates, have no alternative to antiviral measures other than vaccines, Son Young-rae, a senior health department official, said in a briefing.
"These countries are a bit inadequate for us as teachers, and given the security clearance process, we believe there is no reason for us to be the first or second country in the world to receive the vaccines," Son said.
Meanwhile, the first batch of COVID-19 vaccines for U.S. military personnel stationed in South Korea will arrive as early as Thursday, a source familiar with the plan told Reuters.
Around 28,500 US soldiers are stationed in South Korea.
The U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) said they will begin giving the vaccines and that initial vaccinations will be restricted to health care workers and first responders on the front lines.
"In the next few days, USFK will begin receiving and administering the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to fight the COVID-19 virus in order to further protect the armed forces and our community," said a statement from USFK.
South Korea's aggressive tracking and testing at the start of the pandemic had made the country a global success story, but the recent surge in cases has disrupted efforts to contain the virus.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said Wednesday that authorities have so far secured around 8,000 out of 10,000 additional hospital beds for COVID-19 patients with the help of private hospitals.
Seoul and the surrounding area banned gatherings of more than four people from December 23 to January 3, and both restaurant owners and diners can face fines of up to 3 million won (US $ 2,700) for violating the regulation.
Authorities have also closed all ski resorts and winter tourist spots to stop the spread during the Christmas and New Year holidays.
($ 1 = 1,108,5000 won)
(Reporting by Sangmi Cha; Additional reporting by Dogyun Kim; Editing by Edwina Gibbs and Lincoln Feast.)
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