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A medical worker took nasal samples from a police officer at a coronavirus testing site in Seoul on Friday. PHOTO: AHN YOUNG-JOON/ASSOCIATED PRESS
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Rising infections and new, highly contagious strains of the coronavirus are pressuring governments to accelerate vaccinations

By Dasl Yoon in Seoul, Rhiannon Hoyle in Sydney and Felicia Schwartz in Tel Aviv, The Wall Street Journal

Countries around the world are accelerating their efforts to vaccinate their populations against Covid-19 in response to rising infections, public pressure, and fear of new, highly contagious variants of the coronavirus.

In an emerging race between the virus and vaccinations, some countries that previously took a cautious approach to authorizing and procuring vaccines, such as South Korea and Australia, are now bringing forward their timetables. Some other countries that were already pushing to inoculate swaths of their population quickly, such as the U.K. and Israel, are looking to further speed up their rollouts.

A year into the pandemic, the growing urgency behind vaccination programs shows how most of the world is still struggling to contain the virus with social-distancing measures alone. Stubbornly high infections, pressure on hospitals, public weariness with restrictions on everyday life and fear of accumulating economic damage are prompting many governments to hasten their vaccination plans. But in much of the world, ambitious timetables face obstacles including a shortage of available vaccine doses, logistical challenges and mixed levels of public willingness to get inoculated.

South Korea and Australia have brought forward the launch of their vaccination programs to February, about a month earlier than planned, in response to fresh outbreaks and concerns about the economic impact of rising contagion. Both countries were confident until recently they had tamed Covid-19 and therefore could afford to take time to authorize and distribute the new vaccines.

South Korea, seen as a model of how to limit contagion, took a particularly cautious approach to new vaccines last year, citing potential side effects and arguing that time was needed to negotiate better prices with pharmaceutical companies. After Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE said in November their vaccine was 95% effective, South Korea’s health minister expressed surprise Pfizer had asked if the country wanted to place an order. It didn’t for weeks.

But by the end of December, South Korea had procured vaccines for 56 million people, more than its total population and nearly double the size of its initially planned orders.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his government had been cautious with its timetable for vaccinations, given the risk of delays in data, shipping or testing of the shots. But the rapid global spread of more contagious virus variants amplified the risk of waiting until the end of March to begin vaccinations as the government originally planned, according to Australian epidemiologists.

Brisbane is under lockdown for three days because a cleaner at a quarantine hotel tested positive for the highly infectious U.K. strain of the coronavirus.

Australia, which has a population of roughly 25 million people, aims to start with 80,000 vaccinations a week. It now aims to have administered 4 million doses of the two-dose vaccine by the end of March.

Without aggressive vaccination programs, governments are left reliant on social-distancing measures including lockdowns that have delayed child development, taken a toll on mental health and disrupted other health services for non-Covid ailments, said Sonali Kochhar, a member of the World Health Organization’s strategic advisory group for Covid-19 vaccines.

“Thus there are upsides to deploying early,” said Ms. Kochhar, who teaches global public health at the University of Washington.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden will look to accelerate distribution of vaccines by releasing nearly all available doses so that more people can get a first shot, his transition team said on Friday, shifting away from the Trump administration’s approach of holding back stock for second doses.

The move follows a similar initiative in the U.K., where regulators have signed off on plans to spread out the time between the vaccine’s first and second doses to allow more people to get an initial shot and acquire basic protection.

WHO recommended this week that countries delay administering second shots, up to a point, to allow more people to receive their first dose. WHO said countries with severe vaccine shortages could consider injecting the second shot of the Pfizer vaccine up to 42 days after the first.

The rampant spread of a new virus variant in the U.K. that is up to 70% more contagious has prompted the government to accelerate its inoculation campaign. The U.K. has brought in the army to help health services administer two million doses a week to those most vulnerable to the disease.

“We are in a race against time, but I can assure you we’re doing everything we can to vaccinate as many people as possible across our whole United Kingdom,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said this week.

The race has taken on even more urgency as hospital wards in the U.K. fill up following a post-Christmas surge in infections driven by the new virus variant.

Vaccines from Pfizer and BioNTech, AstraZeneca PLC and the University of Oxford, and Moderna Inc. have all received the green light from the U.K. health regulator.

But the race will be tight, health experts say. Even with the latest lockdown, epidemiologists say the government has to hit its target of two million doses a week to keep the more virulent variant in check.

Mr. Johnson said the health service can inoculate 15 million vulnerable people by mid-February. But much depends on how much vaccine the government can get its hands on. Since December, 1.5 million people in the U.K. have received one shot of the vaccine, meaning the government is trailing its target.

Officials say the number of shots delivered will tick up considerably when the AstraZeneca vaccine is fully deployed in coming weeks.

Israel has rolled out the vaccine even faster than the U.K., so far administering a first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to nearly two million people, or 18% of its population. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Thursday that Israel and Pfizer have reached a new agreement to speed up its shipment to the country, with the first of the new batches arriving on Sunday.

Mr. Netanyahu said the fresh infusion from Pfizer will enable Israel to vaccinate its entire population over the age of 16 by the end of March, or perhaps earlier.

The vaccine sprint has created optimism in Israel, but it comes as the country is dealing with its worst outbreak since the pandemic began, with new confirmed infections hovering at around 8,000 a day.

Health officials say Israel’s vaccine drive could fail if citizens don’t abide by the new restrictions.

“For now, it seems that the virus spread is going to win this race,” said Prof. Ran Balicer, chairman of the national advisory team on Covid policy to Israeli’s government. Israel hopes that in the next week and a half if can begin to sharply bring down the number of severely ill Covid-19 patients with help from vaccination efforts, Mr. Balicer said.

See the original article in The Wall Street Journal.