By Sangmi Cha and Josh Smith
SEOUL (Reuters) - American troops stationed in South Korea received the first doses of coronavirus vaccine to be administered in the country on Tuesday, as health officials in Seoul reported a daily record of 40 deaths amid a surge in new cases.
U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), which includes around 28,500 American military personnel as well as thousands of other workers and family members, gave the first doses to military and civilian healthcare workers and first responders in the force as well as USFK's top officers, the command said in a statement.
The vaccinations are voluntary, and will be provided to the rest of the military command as more supplies arrive, USFK's commander, Gen. Robert Abrams, said in the statement.
"The COVID-19 vaccine is another tool that will help USFK maintain a robust combined defensive posture," he said.
The United States military began its first wave of COVID-19 vaccinations at Japan's Yokota Air Base on Monday.
Seoul plans to start its vaccinations in February, with health workers and vulnerable people first in line, but the government has been criticised for that schedule in light of vaccinations underway in the United States and European Union.
President Moon Jae-in has defended the timeline as more than adequate to achieve herd immunity across South Korea as fast or faster than other countries.
On Tuesday Moon's office said he had spoken to Moderna Inc Chief Executive Officer Stéphane Bancel to confirm plans to sign a deal for enough doses from that company to cover 20 million people.
With that deal, by the end of next year South Korea will have arranged for enough doses to allow for coverage of 56 million people, more than the 52 million residents of the country, Moon's office said in a statement.
South Korean officials have vowed to accelerate the launch of the vaccination programme after detecting the virus variant linked to the rapid rise in infections in Britain.
As of midnight Monday there were 1,046 new coronavirus cases, bringing the total to 58,725, with 859 deaths, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said. Of the new cases, 1,030 were locally transmitted and more than half were found in Seoul.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun expressed regret over a mass cluster infection in a Seoul prison, with a total 757 infections, and called for all-out prevention measures.
Authorities had ramped up testing to track down potential cases of unknown origin and those that display no symptoms, especially in the Seoul metropolitan area.
More than 500,000 tests were conducted in temporary testing centres in the greater Seoul area over the past two weeks, where over 1,400 patients were identified, said Chung.
"We made progress in finding the silent spreaders and preventing the transmission," Chung told a meeting.
USFK had distributed its Moderna vaccines to three military treatment facilities across U.S. bases in South Korea on Monday. South Korea is one of four overseas locations in the Department of Defense's initial phased distribution plan.
USFK requested formal talks with the South Korean defence ministry over plans to inoculate South Korean personnel who serve with the United States Army, ministry spokesman Boo Seung-chan told a briefing.
(Reporting by Sangmi Cha and Josh Smith; Editing by Michael Perry)