Southeast Asian Nations Shift COVID-19 Strategies

BenarNews staff
Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand
Southeast Asian Nations Shift COVID-19 Strategies A health worker vaccinates a woman inside a movie theater, which was converted into a COVID-19 inoculation site, in San Juan City, Philippines, June 1, 2021.
Basilio Sepe/BenarNews

Southeast Asian nations are scrambling to increase their stocks of COVID-19 vaccines or shifting strategies to inoculate their people as the pandemic wreaks havoc across the region.

Philippine health officials announced a shift in the nation’s inoculation strategy to target those most at risk of contracting the coronavirus disease in Metropolitan Manila and eight nearby areas because of delays in acquiring vaccines.

“We have shifted [our target] in the light of limited supply because while we have initially targeted 50 million to 70 million people, the supply is very erratic,” Health Undersecretary Myrna Cabotaje told BenarNews in an interview this week.

“If we focus on the vulnerable and most at risk, our hospitalizations, death and serious illness will be reduced,” said Cabotaje, who has acted as the Philippine health department’s spokeswoman on COVID-19.

The Philippines recorded 146 COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday, bringing the death toll to 21,158. In addition, 5,257 infections were recorded, pushing the total to 1.24 million.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) approved for emergency use China’s Sinovac – one of the most widely available vaccines in Southeast Asia.

“The world desperately needs multiple COVID-19 vaccines to address the huge access inequity across the globe,” said Dr. Mariângela Simão, WHO’s assistant-director general for Access to Health Products.

“We urge manufacturers to participate in the COVAX Facility, share their knowhow and data and contribute to bringing the pandemic under control,” she said, referring to the WHO-backed “global initiative to ensure rapid and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines for all countries.”

In Malaysia, about 18 percent of the population is expected to benefit from China’s Sinovac vaccine, said Khairy Jamaluddin, the federal minister in charge of the National COVID-19 Vaccination Program. Jamaluddin noted that all vaccines being used in Malaysia were validated by WHO, a U.N. agency.

In next-door neighbor Thailand on Wednesday, the president of pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca announced that Siam Bioscience, a company owned by Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn, had delivered its first batch of locally made vaccines.

While the number of doses delivered was not announced, the company said Siam Bioscience was prepared to deliver 1.8 million AstraZeneca doses to the kingdom for inoculations scheduled to begin on June 7.

During a news conference, AstraZeneca President James Teak called the delivery an event of great importance and significance while noting that Thailand could produce a COVID-19 vaccine of good quality within a few months.

Siam Bioscience is expected to begin exporting vaccines to Southeast Asian nations in the coming weeks, but media reports noted that a planned shipment to the Philippines has been delayed.

According to a report by the Reuters news service, Philippine presidential adviser Joey Concepcion said he had been informed by AstraZeneca that a planned delivery of 1.3 million doses would be reduced to 1.17 million doses and delayed from the third week of June to mid-July.

The Philippine Department of Health had received 8.3 million vaccines, as of May 31.  A majority – 5.5 million doses – were developed by China’s Sinovac, while the rest were supplied by Anglo-Swedish firm AstraZeneca, U.S. firm Pfizer and Russia’s Sputnik V. Still, only 1.1 million Filipinos have been completely vaccinated. 

Also on Wednesday, Malaysia for the first time recorded a three-digit daily death toll – 126 – along with 7,703 new infections.

Malaysia could see more than 26,000 COVID-19 death related cases by September in a worst-case scenario, according to study by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington in the U.S.

Malaysian professor Adeeba Kamarulzaman who serves as a member of the science council at WHO, said that would require 200 COVID-19 deaths daily and would be the second highest cause of deaths after heart attacks.

On Monday, Malaysia instituted its latest stimulus package – valued at 40 billion ringgit (U.S. $10 billion) – to counter the economic ripple effects of the pandemic as it imposed a new nationwide COVID-19 lockdown, which began the next day. This makes the government’s total economic stimulus package during the pandemic last year to 340 billion ringgit ($82 billion).

Vaccine politics

Meanwhile during a visit to Bangkok, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who met with Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai, reiterated on Wednesday an American government commitment to Thailand in its fight against the coronavirus pandemic. She noted that the United States had given $30 million in coronavirus-related aid to Thailand.

Sherman, the second highest-ranking American diplomat, on Wednesday wrapped up a tour of three Southeast Asian countries, including Indonesia. During her swing through the region, she highlighted plans by the Biden administration to donate 80 million doses to other countries – “five times more than any other country,” Sherman said. 

The distribution plan is to be announced in the next two weeks, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday.

“And as the president has said, the United States will not share these doses in an effort to garner political favors, but rather to end the pandemic, as we work together to end this pandemic,” Sherman told reporters during visits with officials in Jakarta on Monday, in what appeared to be a swipe at vaccine diplomacy in the region by Beijing.

Thannapat Jarernpanit, a professor at Pibulsongkram Rajabhat University, said the meeting between U.S. and Thai officials had political implications tied to countering China’s vaccine efforts in the region.

Bangkok is expected to receive about 6.5 million vaccine doses from Beijing, including 1 million gifted to the nation.

“Looking at it from a people’s point of view, if both the U.S. and China can balance their powers like this, people will have more options for getting vaccinated,” Thannapat told BenarNews. “Now people don’t care whether the vaccinations are free or not, but if it is a brand from the West, they are willing to pay as have more confidence.

“America will probably use this point to counter China,” he said.

Marielle Lucenio in Manila, Noah Lee in Kuala Lumpur, and Nontarat Phaicharoen and Kunnawut Boonreak in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand, contributed to this report.

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