Asia Today: S. Korea tries to curb virus cluster at prison

South Korea has enforced its toughest physical distancing rules at correctional facilities after a cluster of coronavirus infections flared at a Seoul prison

The Justice Ministry says 792 people — 771 inmates and 21 staff — at Seoul’s Dongbu Detention Center have tested positive for the virus since one of the center’s officials was found infected on Nov. 27. One of the infected inmates has died.

South Korea is struggling to contain a viral resurgence tied to a variety of sources such as nursing homes, churches, army bases and family gatherings. Earlier Thursday, South Korea reported 967 new virus cases, taking the country’s total to 60,740 with 900 deaths.

Vice Justice Minister Lee Yong-gu said Thursday the government has imposed the highest-level distancing rules, called “Tier-3,” on all correctional facilities in South Korea for two weeks to guard against COVID-19. Other parts of South Korea are under lower levels of distancing rules.

The new curbs will ban visitors and let inmates connect to people on the outside by video or phone, while trials and summoning of inmates will be minimized. In-prison educational classes will be halted, planned paroles of some inmates will be implemented early and prison staff are prohibited from engaging in outside activities.

How the cluster of infections at the Dongbu facility happened is being investigated, but Lee said overcrowding, poor ventilation and the high-rise structure of the prison are believed to be among the reasons.

In other developments around the Asia-Pacific region:

— Chinese health regulators have given conditional approval to a coronavirus vaccine developed by state-owned Sinopharm. The inactivated, two-dose vaccine is the first one approved for general use in China. The go-ahead comes as the country carries out a campaign to vaccinate 50 million people before celebrating the Lunar New Year in February. The company earlier said preliminary data had shown the vaccine to be 79.3% effective. Conditional approval means research is still ongoing and the regulators may seek more data or restrict the vaccine for certain groups.

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