COVID-19: From Philippines to Bangladesh, Nations Hunt for Vaccines

BenarNews staff
Washington
2020-11-18
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201117-SEA-covid-620.jpg A student wearing a face mask as a precaution against the coronavirus outbreak receives a tetanus-diphtheria vaccine shot from a health worker in Jakarta, Oct. 27, 2020.
AP

Countries in South and Southeast Asia are grappling with rising COVID-19 infection rates as they rush to arrange vaccines for their citizens.

East Asia’s coronavirus hotspot, Indonesia, crossed a health threshold last week when it recorded more than 5,000 new cases in a single day. The archipelago nation with the world’s 15th highest death toll – 15,503 as of Wednesday – has shopped for vaccines around the world.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said Wednesday that vaccination could start as early as December, with priority given to healthcare workers and security forces.

“We hope the vaccine will arrive at the end of this November. But if not, December will do, both finished vaccines and in the bulk form to be manufactured by Bio Farma,” he said, referring to the Indonesian-state-owned pharmaceutical firm.

The Indonesian government says it has secured up to 430 million doses of vaccine for delivery this year and next from Chinese companies Sinovac, Sinopharm and CanSino. Indonesia also signed agreements to purchase vaccines from the South Korean company Genexine Inc. and British pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca.

In Washington, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence offered vaccine cooperation during talks Tuesday with visiting Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment Luhut Pandjaitan, Luhut’s ministry said in a statement Wednesday.

The statement did not provide details on the cooperation proposed by Pence, but said Luhut welcomed the offer and hoped that the next administration would continue close cooperation.

Two American pharmaceutical companies that are developing COVID-19 vaccines, Moderna and Pfizer, have announced in recent days that their vaccines are 95 percent effective, based on preliminary data.

Luhut also visited President Donald Trump at the White House to thank him for extending trade preferences to Indonesia, the statement said. The White House did not announce the visit or respond to a BenarNews request for comment.

Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment Luhut Pandjaitan (red tie) poses for a photo with U.S. President Donald Trump (seated) during a visit to the White House, Nov. 17, 2020. [Photo Courtesy of Indonesia’s Coordinating Ministry for Maritime Affairs and Investment]
Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment Luhut Pandjaitan (red tie) poses for a photo with U.S. President Donald Trump (seated) during a visit to the White House, Nov. 17, 2020. [Photo Courtesy of Indonesia’s Coordinating Ministry for Maritime Affairs and Investment]

Indonesia, meanwhile, faced potential new infections after huge crowds gathered in Jakarta and West Java to greet a popular cleric who returned home last week from a three-year stay in Saudi Arabia. Two police chiefs were sacked for failing to prevent the events.

On Wednesday, the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Indonesia rose by 4,265, bringing the total to 478,720, according to official numbers. The death toll rose by 110.

Winter woes

Indonesia is one of the countries conducting Phase 3 clinical trials of the vaccine being developed by Sinovac, as is Bangladesh. But the Chinese firm has recently said it would pull out of Bangladesh, where the trials have not yet begun, according to Health Minister Zahid Maleque.

“Possibly, they want to leave since we are unable to pay them the money they asked for the trial,” Maleque told BenarNews last week.

In October, Bangladesh’s government notified Sinovac that it would not agree to co-fund a phase-three trial because that was not part of a deal agreed to in July, Maleque said.

None of the countries that have allowed vaccine trials are paying companies for them, he added.

Bangladesh has since signed a deal with the Serum Institute of India to buy 30 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine being developed by the multinational drug maker AstraZeneca. The South Asian nation has recorded at least 438,795 infections and 6,275 deaths.

Bangladesh has seen new cases creep above 2,000 a day in the last few days, after recording a trend of steady declines from July to October.

In late October, in a bid to enforce public use of masks, the government instructed all public and private offices to decline services to anyone not wearing one, ahead of an expected rise in infections during the winter months.

“We expected that we would see a second wave of coronavirus ahead of the winter in Bangladesh so we suggested that the government prepare,” Nazrul Islam, former chairman of the department of virology at the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University, told BenarNews.

Soaring numbers

Another country facing a surge in cases is Malaysia, which kept daily new infections to low double-digits for months, but saw numbers soar from six on Sept. 6 to an all-time high of 1,755 on Nov. 6. Prison clusters and a by-election in late September in the state of Sabah – and people traveling there to campaign – have been linked to the surge.

Malaysia’s king on Wednesday declared a state of emergency in the Sabah constituency of Batu Sapi in order to postpone a Dec. 5 by-election there, “as a proactive measure to curb the symptoms of the COVID-19 pandemic,” a statement by the palace in Kuala Lumpur said.

Also Wednesday, Beijing agreed to give Malaysia “priority access to COVID-19 vaccines developed by China” under a five-year deal signed by Malaysia’s minister for science, technology and innovation Khairy Jamaluddin and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Zhigang.

Malaysia recorded 660 new cases on Wednesday, for a cumulative caseload of 50,390, and four deaths, bringing the mortality total to 322.

Serial Typhoons

The Philippines is another country promised Chinese vaccines on a “priority” basis. But President Rodrigo Duterte has said he is open to acquiring a COVID-19 vaccine from the first country to develop one.

During a Tuesday visit to the far-northern Philippines, Duterte spokesman Harry Roque said the government was prepared to get the vaccine from U.S. drug manufacturer Pfizer.

“We have firm commitments from the United States that we will have access to COVID vaccines that may be developed in the United States,” Roque said.

The government continues to work with Chinese and Russian companies in conducting trials of vaccines against the coronavirus.

The Philippines has been in various stages of a lockdown since March, one of the world’s longest. Despite a high rate of infections, the government in recent weeks decided to partially open up its tourism industry and restrictions in domestic and international travel. Philippine health authorities have recorded 412,097 coronavirus cases and nearly 8,000 related deaths.

The government’s efforts to curb the virus were disrupted by the landfall of three typhoons in rapid succession this month, during which thousands of people – particularly in the more populated northern Philippines – were forced to huddle in shelters.

Duterte on Saturday said he had cleared national police chief Debold Sinas from any wrongdoing for attending a birthday party in May in violation of health regulations – an incident that drew criticism but did not prevent Sinas, who was Manila’s top cop at the time, from being promoted.

Keeping Covid at Bay

Thailand, for its part, has kept COVID-19 at bay, recorded just 3,880 cases and 60 deaths as of Wednesday.

The Thai government was effective in combatting the pandemic through a “quick lockdown, an effective test-and-trace rollout and an already strong healthcare system,” according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank based in Washington.

On Tuesday, the Thai cabinet approved a budget of 6 billion baht (U.S. $198.7 million) to preorder 26 million doses of COVID vaccine from U.K.-based AstraZeneca, according to a government spokesman. That amount would cover 13 million people, or 20 percent of the population, spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri told journalists.

“The government realizes the need for Thais to have access to quality vaccine at the same time as others in the world,” he said.

Ronna Nirmala and Ahmad Syamsudin in Jakarta, Kamran Reza Chowdhury in Dhaka, Jason Gutierrez in Manila, Hadi Azmi in Kuala Lumpur, and Nontarat Phaicharoen and Wilawan Watcharasakwet in Bangkok contributed to this report.

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