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Asia Today: Australia OKs Pfizer vaccine, to begin in Feb.

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Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

A health worker takes a blood sample from a man for a coronavirus rapid test at the Patriot Candrabhaga Stadium in Bekasi, Indonesia, Monday, Jan. 25, 2021. Indonesia has reported more cases of the virus than any other countries in Southeast Asia. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)

SYDNEY – Australia’s medical regulator has approved use of its first coronavirus vaccine, paving the way for inoculations to begin next month.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration on Monday gave provisional approval for people aged 16 and over to use the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech. Residents and workers at aged-care facilities, frontline healthcare workers and quarantine workers are among the groups being prioritized for the first doses.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison welcomed the development. He said Australia was among the first countries to complete a comprehensive process to formally approve a vaccine rather than just grant an emergency approval.

Australia has an agreement for 10 million doses of the two-dose Pfizer vaccine and an option to buy more if supplies allow.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said Monday the country overall had secured 140 million vaccines, one of the highest dosing rates per head of population in the world.

The biggest of the pre-orders, conditional on regulatory approval, is 53.8 million doses of the vaccine made by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, 50 million of which would be made in Australia in a partnership with Melbourne-based biopharmaceutical company CSL.

Australia is aiming to complete inoculations by October. The nation of 26 million people has reported fewer than 30,000 virus cases and a little over 900 deaths.

In other developments in the Asia-Pacific region:

— Australia has suspended its partial travel bubble with New Zealand after New Zealand reported its first coronavirus case outside of a quarantine facility in two months. Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt said Monday the suspension would last for three days and was being implemented out of an abundance of caution. Travelers affected need to cancel or face two weeks in quarantine upon arrival. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she’d told Morrison she had confidence in New Zealand’s systems and processes, but it was up to Australia to decide how they managed their borders. Health officials in New Zealand say genome tests indicate the woman contracted the virus from another returning traveler just before leaving quarantine. However, there was no evidence the virus has spread further. Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said the 56-year-old woman had recently returned from Europe. During her mandatory two weeks in quarantine, she tested negative twice. She developed symptoms at home later and tested positive. Officials say the woman appears to have caught the more infectious South African variant of the virus from another traveler on her second-to-last day in quarantine, and they’re investigating how the health breach happened.

— Bangladesh received 5 million doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccine from an Indian producer on Monday. Under a three-way agreement, it plans to buy 30 million doses from the Serum Institute of India in phases. A Bangladeshi company, Beximco Pharmaceuticals Ltd., received the 5 million doses as distributor for the South Asian country. Nazmul Hasan Papon, managing director of Beximco Pharmaceuticals, said the vaccine will be provided to government authorities across the country. The government is training thousands of volunteers to administer the vaccine. The country received 2 million doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccine last Thursday as a gift from India, while Monday’s doses were purchased. The vaccine, manufactured under license by Serum Institute of India, will be given first to front-line workers, including doctors and nurses. Bangladesh has recorded more than 8.000 deaths from the coronavirus.

— Sri Lanka's government says it will start administering a coronavirus vaccine this week. Sri Lanka is to receive a donation of 500,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine from India on Wednesday and will begin inoculations the next day, the government said. It will first be given to health workers, the military and police. Sri Lanka has also ordered supplies of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine, and separately is to receive enough vaccine for 20% of its population through COVAX, a program led by the World Health Organization and others. Last week, Sri Lanka’s National Medicines Regulatory Authority approved the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine amid warnings from doctors that front-line health workers should be quickly inoculated to prevent the medical system from collapsing. On Saturday, health minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi tested positive for COVID-19. The disease resurged in October with two new clusters, one at a garment factory and the other at a fish market. Sri Lanka has reported 58,429 case, with 283 fatalities.

— A lockdown in part of Hong Kong's Kowloon neighborhood was lifted Monday after thousands of residents were tested for the virus. The lockdown that began early Saturday covered 16 buildings in the working-class Yau Tsim Mong district. During the lockdown, residents were not allowed to leave their premises until they had tested negative for the coronavirus. The district has been at the center of a worsening coronavirus outbreak, with over 160 cases reported over the first three weeks in January. Higher concentrations of the virus were also found in sewage samples, prompting fears the virus could be transmitted via poorly installed plumbing systems in subdivided units that lack ventilation. The government said in a statement early Monday that about 7,000 people were tested for the coronavirus during the lockdown, with 13 positive infections found. As of Sunday, Hong Kong has reported 10,086 cases of the coronavirus overall, with 169 deaths recorded.

— South Korea has reported another new 437 infections of the coronavirus as officials raised alarm over an outbreak at a missionary training school. Around 130 students and teachers were found infected so far at the church-run academy in the central city of Daejeon. Prime Minster Chung Sye-kyun during a virus meeting called for health officials to deal swiftly with the outbreak at the Daejeon school and prevent transmissions from spreading further. South Korea throughout the pandemic has repeatedly seen huge infection clusters emerge from religious groups, including more than 5,000 infections tied to the secretive Shincheonji Church of Jesus that drove a major outbreak in the southeastern region in spring last year. “We cannot let that situation repeat,” Chung said. The numbers released by the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency on Monday brought the national caseload to 75,521, including 11 deaths.