South Korea on Wednesday reported its highest single-day number of new coronavirus cases in three months amid a rise in cluster infections, as it approved a Johnson & Johnson vaccine in a bid to expedite its inoculation campaign.
The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) reported 668 new cases for Tuesday, the highest level since Jan. 8, with clusters developing in kindergartens, saunas, bars and churches, mostly in the greater Seoul area.
The country's food and drug safety ministry said on Wednesday it has granted final approval for the use of Johnson & Johnson's (J&J) vaccine after a panel of experts ruled the single-dose shot treatment was safe and effective.
J&J is the third Covid-19 vaccine maker to be authorised in South Korea, after AstraZeneca and Pfizer both of which require two doses.
Authorities are seeking to speed up a national vaccination campaign despite global supply shortages while expanding preemptive testing and tracing efforts amid concerns over a potential fourth wave of infections. To date, total infections stand at 106,898, with 1,756 deaths.
"If the fourth wave of infections becomes a reality, a disruption to vaccination would be inevitable, as well as dealing a big blow to our economy," Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun told a government meeting on Wednesday.
"The government is maximising efforts to prevent the fourth wave by mobilising all means possible," he said.
Health officials called on the public to refrain from non-essential gatherings and strictly log visits to crowded venues, such as restaurants, cafes and karaoke bars to facilitate epidemiological work in case of any outbreak.
South Korea is well-equipped with medical resources and enough hospital beds to cover up to 1,000 daily confirmed cases over a 20-day period, Yoon Tae-ho, a senior health ministry official, told a briefing.
"Yet once the fourth wave takes off, there is a possibility the number of patients will spike, so we will continue to secure more beds and take regional measures," said Yoon.
Health authorities also said they will announce new social distancing rules on Friday after discussion with experts and local governments.
The country has so far administered over a million doses of vaccine among medical workers and high-risk groups since the start of its inoculation drive in February, yet authorities face a backlash for relying on the global vaccine-sharing programme COVAX, which has run into delays.