The Republic of Korea will begin treating coronavirus patients with Pfizer's antiviral pills on Friday, health officials said, as concern mounts over the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant.
At least 21,000 of the pills, called Paxlovid, will arrive on Thursday and be sent out to some 280 pharmacies and 90 residential treatment centres, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said.
The medication will be used to treat more than 1,000 people a day, with priority groups including patients with a high chance of developing critical symptoms, those aged 65 or older and those with reduced immunity, the KDCA said.
Another 10,000 of the pills are expected to arrive later in the month.
Paxlovid was nearly 90% effective in preventing hospitalisations and deaths in patients at high risk of severe illness, and data suggested it retains its effectiveness against Omicron, Pfizer has said.
The RoK has been exploring additional pharmaceutical tools to head off a surge of infections caused by the Omicron variant. It approved the use of Novavax Inc's vaccine on Wednesday.
The KDCA reported another record for imported COVID-19 cases for Wednesday, at 391, among a tally for the day of 4,167 infections.
Since shortly after the pandemic began, the country of 52 million people has been among the coronavirus mitigation success stories, with 679,030 cases in all and 6,210 deaths, achieved largely with masks and social distancing.
The Omicron variant makes up a small fraction of its overall cases but the share has more than tripled to about 12.5% over the past two weeks.
Health officials have warned it could this month become dominant, as it has in the United States and much of Europe, and daily tallies could soar up to an unprecedented 20,000 next month.
The government is set to decide on Friday whether to extend social distancing rules, which were reinstated in mid-December after daily infections hit new highs of nearly 8,000.
More than 84.4% of the RoK people have been fully vaccinated and 43.1% have had a booster shot as of Wednesday, KDCA data showed.
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- WHO: There’s no sign that Omicron could evade protection against severe disease
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- “At least one Covid patient has been confirmed to have died with Omicron”