Vaccine Shipments Rise as Delta Virus Variant Strikes Asia | News, sports, jobs

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AP Photo / Sakchai Lalit residents are waiting for the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine to be picked up at the Central Vaccination Center in Bangkok, Thailand on Thursday July 15.

JAKARTA, Indonesia – As many Asian countries battle their worst spike in COVID-19 infections, the slow flow of vaccine doses from around the world is finally gathering pace, raising hopes that vaccination rates will rise and mitigate the effects of the rapid spread can delta variant.

However, with many vaccine promises still unfulfilled and infection rates rising in several countries, experts must do more to help nations grappling with patient overflows and shortages of oxygen and other critical supplies.

About 1.5 million doses of the Moderna vaccine arrived Thursday afternoon in Indonesia, which has become a dominant hot spot with record high infections and deaths.

The U.S. shipment follows 3 million other American cans that arrived on Sunday and 11.7 million AstraZeneca cans that have been shipped in batches through the UN-backed COVAX mechanism since March, the last earlier this week.

“That is very encouraging” said Sowmya Kadandale, UNICEF’s head of health in Indonesia, which is responsible for distributing vaccines delivered through COVAX. “There seems to be a race between vaccines and variants now, not just in Indonesia, and I hope we win this race.”

Many, including the World Health Organization, criticize vaccination inequalities in the world, pointing out that in many affluent nations, more than half of their populations are at least partially vaccinated, while the vast majority of people in low-income countries are still waiting on a first dose.

The International Red Cross warned this week of a “Widening the Global Vaccine Gap” and said wealthy countries need to deliver on their pledges sooner.

“It’s a shame that it didn’t happen earlier and can’t go any faster” Alexander Matheou, the Asia-Pacific director of the Red Cross, said of the recent surge in shipments. “It’s not too late – vaccinating people is always worthwhile – but the later the vaccines come, the more people will die.”

Vietnam, Thailand and South Korea all imposed new lockdown restrictions last week as they struggle to contain rapidly rising infections amid sluggish vaccination campaigns.

In South Korea – widely praised for its initial response to the pandemic, which included extensive testing and contact tracing – a vaccine shortage has kept 70% of the population still waiting for their first vaccination. Thailand, which only started mass vaccination in early June, has skyrocketing cases and record deaths, and only about 15% of people have received at least one vaccination. In Vietnam only about 4% have it.

“Parts of the world … talk about regaining lost freedoms, such as going back to work, opening cinemas and restaurants.” Matheou told The Associated Press. “This part of the world is far from it.”

Indonesia began aggressively vaccinating earlier than many others in the region and negotiated bilaterally with China over the Sinovac jabs. Now about 14% of the population – the fourth largest in the world – has at least one dose of a vaccine, mostly Sinovac. Several countries also have their own manufacturing capacities, including South Korea, Japan, and Thailand, but need even more doses to meet the needs of the region’s vast population.

“Both Moderna and AstraZeneca were very important in increasing those numbers and ensuring that supplies were available.” UNICEF’s Kadandale said, noting that Indonesia plans to vaccinate an additional 208.2 million people by the end of the year and give 1 million vaccinations a day. “Every single dose makes a big difference.”

In many other countries in the region, vaccination rates are well below Indonesia’s for a number of reasons, including production and distribution problems and an initial wait-and-see attitude by many when the numbers were low and there was less sense of urgency.

Some were shocked after witnessing the devastation in India in April and May when the country’s health system collapsed amid a sharp surge in cases that caught the government unprepared and resulted in mass deaths.

At the same time, India – a large regional vaccine manufacturer – stopped exporting cans so it could focus on its own suffering population.

The US recently sent tens of millions of doses of vaccine to several countries in Asia as part of President Joe Biden’s pledge to provide 80 million doses, including Vietnam, Laos, South Korea and Bangladesh. The US plans to donate an additional 500 million vaccines worldwide next year, and 200 million by the end of 2021.

“Indonesia is an important partner for the US engagement in Southeast Asia and the vaccines come unconditional.” said Scott Hartmann, a spokesman for the US embassy in Jakarta. “We are doing this with the aim of saving lives and ending the global pandemic, and equitable global access to safe and effective vaccines is essential.”

At the beginning of the week, the German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, whose country is one of the largest donors of COVAX, accused Russia and China of using their vaccine deliveries for political leverage.

“With China in particular, we notice that the delivery of vaccines was also used to make very clear political demands from various countries.” he said without giving any specific examples.

The question of the effectiveness of the Chinese Sinovac vaccine against the Delta variant of the virus is also growing.

Thai officials said frontline medical workers who had previously received two doses of Sinovac would receive booster doses from AstraZeneca after a nurse who received two doses of Sinovac died on Saturday after contracting COVID-19.

Sinovac has been approved by the WHO for an emergency, but Indonesia also said it was planning to booster health workers with some of the newly shipped Moderna doses after reports of some of the health workers who died since June were reportedly fully vaccinated with the Chinese shot.

“We still found that people get severe symptoms or die, even if they are vaccinated.” Pandu Riono, an epidemiologist from the University of Indonesia, said about the Sinovac shot. “It’s only proven that some vaccines are powerful enough to counter the Delta variant – AstraZeneca, Moderna and Pfizer seem capable.”

While most of the recent shipments were of American origin, on Thursday, under bilateral agreements, Japan sent 1 million cans of AstraZeneca each to Indonesia, Taiwan and Vietnam, and Vietnam said it will receive 1.5 million more AstraZeneca cans from Australia.

The Philippines are expecting a total of 16 million cans in July, including 3.2 million from the US this week, 1.1 million from Japan, 132,000 Sputnik V from Russia and more via COVAX.

Japan is also sending 11 million this month via COVAX to Bangladesh, Cambodia, Iran, Laos, Nepal, Sri Lanka and others.

Canada this week pledged an additional 17.7 million overdoses on top of the 100 million already pledged through COVAX, which is coordinated by Gavi, a vaccine alliance. France shipped 1.7 million cans worldwide with COVAX by June and will send millions more this summer.

In addition to distributing some donated vaccines, financial contributions to COVAX also help fund the purchase of cans, which are distributed free of charge to 92 low- and middle-income countries.

Earlier this month the African Union came under heavy criticism of how long it took for vaccines to reach the continent, noting that only 1% of Africans are fully vaccinated.

Gavi said the vaccine shortage this year was due to the largest COVAX supplier, Serum Institute of India, redirecting production to domestic use.

However, in its latest supply forecast, Gavi shows that shipments are just beginning to see a sharp increase and are still on track to hit the target of around 1.5 billion cans by the end of the year, a coverage of 23% in Low and middle income countries with more than 5 billion doses corresponds to the end of 2022.

“It is better to focus on vaccinating the world and avoid hoarding cans.” said Matheou from the Red Cross. “Vaccine exchange makes everyone safer.”

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