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Coronavirus

New Zealand begins COVID-19 vaccination program

Australia set to start inoculations on Monday

New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks at a news conference on the coronavirus pandemic in Wellington on Feb. 17.   © Reuters

New Zealand started its official rollout of Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine on Saturday, while Australia finalized plans to begin inoculations on Monday, a new phase in tackling the virus that both countries have kept largely contained.

A small group of medical professionals were injected on Friday in Auckland ahead of the wider rollout which was officially starting with border staff and so-called Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ) workers on Saturday, officials said.

In Australia, hotel quarantine and healthcare workers will also be the first cohort to be inoculated at 16 Pfizer vaccination hubs across the nation, alongside older Australians at aged care facilities.

"Today, we kick off the largest immunization program in our history, by vaccinating the first of our border workforce, a critical step in protecting everyone in Aotearoa," New Zealand health minister Ashley Bloomfield told reporters in Auckland, using the country's indigenous Maori name.

"We will be moving through these first few days and weeks in a measured way to make sure our systems and processes are solid."

New Zealand expects its nationwide rollout covering the country's population of 5 million will take a full year, while Australia aims to inoculate its 25 million citizens by October.

No new COVID-19 infections were reported in the communities of either country in the previous 24 hours despite tens of thousands of tests, officials said.

Both nations ended snap local lockdowns this week after a cluster emerged from a quarantine hotel in Melbourne and as New Zealand authorities investigate how a strain of a highly transmissible UK variant was found in three members of an Auckland family.

The two countries rank among the top 10 globally in a COVID-19 performance index for their successful handling of the pandemic.

Australia has recorded just under 29,000 cases and 909 deaths, while New Zealand has recorded just 26 deaths from 2,350 cases.

(Reuters)

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