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Monday, May 31, 2021, 16:03
SE Asia increasingly looks to Chinese vaccines amid virus surge
By Yang Han and Prime Sarmiento in Hong Kong
Monday, May 31, 2021, 16:03 By Yang Han and Prime Sarmiento in Hong Kong

A staff member transports a batch of Sinovac COVID-19 vaccines at the Phnom Penh International Airport in Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia, May 11, 2021. (PHEARUM / XINHUA)

Vaccines from China are proving critical to Southeast Asian nations as they battle a new wave of COVID-19 infections, experts said, adding that the region can also benefit from China’s experience in protecting public health security as well as the economy.  

“Across Southeast Asia, (countries) are facing the resurgence (of COVID-19) with new variants,” said Chheang Vannarith, president of Asian Vision Institute, a think tank in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. For many countries, the most effective solution is probably herd community, which requires vaccination of 70 or 80 percent of the entire population, he said.

Amid this situation, vaccine cooperation with China comes in handy, especially given that supplies from Western nations and global pharmaceutical giants are not easy to come by.   

“China has allocated a significant amount of vaccines to other countries; that shows a responsible leadership role of China,” said Chheang, noting that action matters more than talk when it comes to promoting vaccine equity. “Southeast Asia is a unique neighbor so China has given a lot of attention to this region.”  

Cambodia reported 579 new COVID cases on May 30, bringing the nation’s total tally to 29,404, according to the country’s Ministry of Health.

ALSO READ: Variants spark fear in SE Asia

The country has so far received over 6 million doses of vaccines, including 4 million Sinovac jabs it ordered and 1.7 million doses of China-donated vaccines from another Chinese firm, Sinopharm Group, local media Khmer Times reported.

As Southeast Asian nations battle battle a new wave of COVID-19 cases, vaccine cooperation with China comes in handy, especially given that supplies from Western nations and global pharmaceutical giants are not easy to come by

Cambodia plans to inoculate 10 million people, or around 64 percent of its entire population, by early 2020 to fight the pandemic. As of May 30, 25.67 percent of the target population have been vaccinated, according to its health ministry.

China has provided vaccines in assistance to over 80 developing countries in urgent need and has exported vaccines to 43 countries, offering a total of 300 million doses to the world. The country has said that it will prioritize the needs of ASEAN countries.

During the Global Health Summit on May 21, Chinese President Xi Jinping said Beijing “will provide still more vaccines to the best of its ability”.

In Indonesia, the hardest-hit country in Southeast Asia, authorities on May 25 welcomed the arrival of 8 million bulk doses of COVID-19 vaccines from China. The country has so far received a total of 83.9 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines, both in bulk and ready-to-use, from China’s Sinovac and Sinopharm and British company AstraZeneca, according to Xinhua. Most of the vaccine doses were from Sinovac. 

“Indonesia also has transfer knowledge cooperation with China,” noted Dicky Budiman, an epidemiologist at Griffith University in Australia, referring to a partnership between Indonesian state company Bio Farma and Sinovac. The cooperation not only allows Indonesia to produce its own vaccines, but also aims to make the archipelago a hub of vaccine production in Southeast Asia.

The joint vaccine development “benefits Indonesia because it can plan its vaccine production and distribution” based on the demand situation, said Budiman.

In a recent interview with the Global Times, Sinovac said as a result of collaboration with scientists from Indonesia, Turkey and Chile, the company has provided 540 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine in China and nearly 40 other countries and regions, accounting for about a quarter of the total global supply.

READ MORE: Chinese vaccines gain acceptance far and wide

In Thailand, as of May 20, China has delivered 6 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines, including 500,000 doses donated on May 17, the Chinese embassy in Thailand said on its Facebook page.

More than 3.5 million Thai people have received vaccines, according to data released by the Thai government. Most of them received Sinovac’s CoronaVac.

A health worker administers a dose of the COVID-19 coronavirus CoronaVac vaccine at Bang Sue Central Station in Bangkok on May 24, 2021. (Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)

“Thailand now faces a serious third round breakout of the pandemic and the public are eager to take the vaccine,” said Tang Zhimin, director of China ASEAN Studies at the Bangkok-based Panyapiwat Institute of Management. Thailand’s COVID-19 death toll surpassed 1,000 on May 30, an increase of over tenfold since the latest outbreak started in April.

Noting the Thai government plans to expand the vaccinations from high-risk groups to the general public starting from early June, Tang said the “supply from China is substantial and timely”.

Thai PBS World, an online English news website of the Thai Public Broadcasting Service, reported that Thailand is expecting the delivery of another 3 million doses of CoronaVac and 1 million Sinopharm vaccine doses in June. The Thai government plans to vaccinate 70 percent of its population by the end of this year.

China has provided vaccines in assistance to over 80 developing countries in urgent need and has exported vaccines to 43 countries, offering a total of 300 million doses to the world

Thailand has approved the emergency use of Sinovac and Sinopharms vaccines.

In the Philippines, a nationwide survey released by Social Weather Station on May 24 found that 39 percent of respondents said they prefer Sinovac’s vaccine over those from other manufacturers, according to Xinhua. At the time of the survey, which was conducted from April 28 to May 2, the Philippines had received over 7 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines of which most were Sinovac jabs.

China donated a first batch of Sinovac’s COVID vaccines to Philippines on Feb 28, allowing the nation to kick off a vaccination drive on March 1.

“Chinese vaccines played an important role in the Philippine pandemic response,” said Lucio Blanco Pitlo III, research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation. He said Sinovac’s CoronaVac was the first vaccine to be used in the country’s national vaccination roll-out in early March and was the first batch of foreign-donated vaccines to reach the country. 

READ MORE: More Southeast Asian nations embrace Chinese vaccines

Gideon Lasco, medical anthropologist and senior lecturer at the University of the Philippines' Department of Anthropology, said: “The latest studies point to Sinovac actually being a good vaccine for preventing serious COVID-19, and thus can definitely contribute to the government's vaccination program.”

People wait to get inoculated with the Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine in Manila, the Philippines, on May 1, 2021. (ROUELLE UMALI / XINHUA)

In a phone conversation with Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc on May 24, Xi said China stands ready to continue to provide as much assistance as its capacity allows for Vietnam’s fight against the pandemic.

Vietnam has logged 7,017 COVID-19 cases as of May 30, more than half of which were recorded in the latest outbreak since April. The country began its inoculation campaign in March with AstraZeneca’s shots, and said it will diversify the supplies from other manufacturers including Sinovac.

Noting that vaccines from China are critical to Southeast Asian countries to help them contain the contagion and restart their economies, Chheang from the Asian Vision Institute said China and Southeast Asian countries can further cooperate in other areas, including efforts aimed at ensuring proper balance between public health security and economic security to reduce the impact of pandemic-related lockdowns.

“Economic collapse will lead to political collapse,” said Chheang. “China and ASEAN need to work on further deepening regional integration, connectivity in trade and investment.”

Contact the writers at kelly@chinadailyapac.com

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