Southeast Asian Nations Find it Tough to Reduce Delta Variant Infections

Nontarat Phaicharoen, S. Adie Zul and Jason Gutierrez
Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Manila
2021-09-09
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Southeast Asian Nations Find it Tough to Reduce Delta Variant Infections A woman receives a dose of the Chinese Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine at the Narathiwat Hospital compound in the southern province of Narathiwat, Thailand, Aug. 5, 2021.
[AFP]

The infectious Delta variant of COVID-19 is cutting a swathe through much of Southeast Asia as some of the region’s countries report daily new infections close to record highs after a flattening late last year and in early 2021.

Indonesia, where new cases have dropped to below 10,000 daily following a horrific second wave in June and July that saw infections soar to as high as 56,757 in one day, is one of the region’s bright spots.

In Malaysia where 70.5 percent of adults are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, new cases remain high because of the Delta variant and three other factors, said Dr. Kris See, medical director of the Osel Group, a health care company.

“First, substandard preventative measures – for example, substandard quality of masks; second, the lack of or failure to do contact tracing and no testing of asymptomatic infected people before their discharge from quarantine; and third, different rates of vaccination roll-out by different states,” Dr. See told BenarNews.

In a span of 28 days through Wednesday, the number of new cases in Malaysia increased by nearly 580,000, taking the country close to breaking the 2 million mark, government data shows.

Worse, as of Wednesday, about 35 percent of new infections were reported among fully vaccinated people – called breakthrough infections – and nearly 23 percent of hospitalized patients were fully inoculated, according to the data.

Malaysian Health Director-General Noor Hisham Abdullah said fully vaccinated people need to follow all safety precautions.

“Once vaccinated, we still need to comply to SOP, as we still can be infected but with less severity,” Noor Hisham told BenarNews, referring to Malaysia’s standard operating protocols during the pandemic.

“Now, if you have 80 to 90 percent of people vaccinated, then the reason for breakthrough infections is non-compliance – more so for the elderly and those with comorbidities.”

Thailand to discontinue China’s Sinovac shots

Meanwhile, in neighboring Thailand, daily new cases remain above 14,000 – although they have declined slightly since a peak in mid-August – as the country’s inoculation program got off to a slow start.

Pro-democracy protesters now include the perceived mismanagement of vaccine procurement among their grievances.

Amid this public disquiet, a war of words has erupted over the Chinese-made Sinovac vaccine, which Thailand will soon stop importing, Sophon Iamsirithaworn, director of the Department of Disease Control said last week.

The announcement follows a move by Malaysian officials in July to stop using Sinovac’s vaccine.

Thailand’s Sophon did not give a reason for planning to stop importing the Sinovac vaccines, but his announcement came after a heated debate in parliament last week about its cost and efficacy.

Close to two months ago, the Thai government said frontline health workers who received the Chinese vaccine as their first shot would receive an AstraZeneca jab as their second one. In July, a prominent doctor said the Sinovac vaccine was not effective enough against the highly transmissible Delta variant, the Bangkok Post had reported.

Late Wednesday, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Tanee Sangrat defended Sinovac’s efficacy, saying the “distortion” of facts about the Chinese shot had “impacted Thailand’s relationship with a good and close friend.”

“[C]ertain persons and groups have undermined the Sinovac vaccine regardless of facts and accuracy, while China has been a long-time cordial friend of Thailand … and Sinovac was approved by the World Health Organization,” Tanee said.

The Chinese embassy in Thailand on Sept. 3 denounced the “slander of the [Sinovac] vaccine by some persons and organizations in Thailand without a reason.”

On Tuesday, the cabinet of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha approved purchasing 12 million Sinovac doses. Thai news reports said the government will stop administering the Chinese shots in October when about 70 million Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines are expected to arrive.

Additionally, as Thailand continues to suffer a shortage of vaccines amid high infection numbers, health authorities said they plan to start vaccinating citizens with a combination of Sinovac’s  and AstraZeneca/Pfizer’s shots.

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the Philippines crossed 2 million infections on Sept. 1 before reporting a record number of new cases – 22,820 – on Thursday. With 61 new virus-related deaths recorded as well, the pandemic death toll has risen to 34,733.

Only 13.8 million of the Philippines’ 109.6 million people are fully vaccinated, according to the state-run Philippine News Agency.

Because of the worsening situation, the government earlier this week walked back a plan to cut back on movement restrictions, meaning Metro Manila and nearby suburbs remain on lockdown.

Indonesia, meanwhile, relaxed coronavirus restrictions on Monday, allowing most parts of Java Island to conditionally open malls, factories and restaurants, news agencies reported.

The country’s daily coronavirus positivity rate – the proportion of people tested who are positive – dropped below 5 percent this week for the first time since March 2020, The Jakarta Post reported.

The World Health Organization has said a positivity rate above 5 percent is an indication COVID-19 is out of control.

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