By Josh Smith and Dan Williams
SEOUL/JERUSALEM (Reuters) -South Korea said it will receive 700,000 doses of Pfizer-BioNTech's coronavirus vaccine from Israel on loan this week, in an attempt to speed up immunisation following a surge in infections around the capital Seoul.
More than 1,000 COVID-19 cases were reported as of 6 p.m. on Tuesday, the highest since December and hundreds more than the 746 cases posted on Monday, Yonhap news agency reported, citing South Korean government health officials.
Under the vaccine swap arrangement announced by both governments on Tuesday, South Korea will give Israel back the same number of shots, already on order from Pfizer, in September and October.
South Korea has quickly distributed the COVID-19 vaccines it has, but has struggled to obtain enough doses in a timely manner as global supplies are tight, particularly in Asia.
Briefing reporters in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the vaccines were being loaded aboard a plane within hours of the deal's announcement on Tuesday, and that South Korean officials would verify their viability.
"This is a win-win deal," he said in an earlier statement. "Together we will beat the pandemic."
After a stellar roll-out, Israel has administered both shots to around 55% of its population and turnout has plateaued.
Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) Director Jeong Eun-kyeong said the deal would allow South Korea to accelerate its vaccination plans, including providing shots to employees in some sectors that have a high amount of contact with other people.
Local authorities will decide who gets the vaccines, but she said priority could be given to people such as street cleaners, delivery workers and retail employees.
South Korean authorities said last week they were hoping to achieve herd immunity earlier than the current November target by inoculating at least 70% of the population with a minimum of one vaccine dose, mostly mRNA vaccines such as Pfizer's.
Jeong said that if the vaccination drive goes according to plan, and South Korea finds itself with surplus doses later in the year after sending back the agreed doses to Israel, it too would look to share its stockpile with other countries.
South Korea has been battling persistent small outbreaks, prompting officials to delay some easing of social distancing rules.
(Reporting by Josh Smith and Dan Williams; Editing by Kim Coghill, Simon Cameron-Moore and Timothy Heritage)