Vaccine collaboration crucial now

Southeast Asia has been under attack from the highly contagious Delta coronavirus variant lately, and the fact that a large portion of the population is unvaccinated makes it extremely hard for countries to curb the spread.

Indonesia in particular is being wracked by a particularly brutal wave of Covid-19, with movement curbed in the economic heartland of Java and the tourist enclave of Bali. Despite aggressive containment efforts, new cases now surpass those of India, topping 50,000 a day since last Wednesday, with authorities warning that infections may continue to rise.

Malaysia, with record deaths and cases amid a ramping up of vaccinations, is still in the midst of a nationwide lockdown, as new cases reached a record 13,215 last Thursday. The country of 32 million has one of Southeast Asia’s highest per-capita infection rates, but also one of its highest rates of inoculation, with 4 million or 12.3% of its population fully vaccinated and 25% having received at least one dose.

In the Philippines, meanwhile, only 3.2% or 3.3 million of its 110 population have been fully vaccinated while 6.4 million have received their first jab. With 1.49 million infections and 26,314 deaths, the Philippines has the second-highest number of cases and deaths in Southeast Asia, next to Indonesia.

Vietnam, after successfully containing the virus for months, has brought in movement restrictions after a spike in infections. Only around 3.8 million people in the country of 98 million have received one vaccine dose, and just 280,367 have been fully vaccinated.

Vietnam has been relying heavily on vaccines from AstraZeneca, which has had problems meeting demand worldwide, and authorities have faced calls for a faster rollout. Now the government is preparing to offer the mRNA vaccine from Pfizer as a second-dose option for people who have received a first AstraZeneca shot.

Mixing vaccines remains controversial. In Thailand, the Ministry of Public Health announced last week that AstraZeneca would be used as a second dose for those who received Chinese-made Sinovac as their first dose. The decision came after 618 medical workers out of 677,348 personnel who received two Sinovac jabs became infected from April to July and one nurse died.

The announcement drew public criticism amid confusion spurred by a news report quoting the World Health Organization (WHO) chief scientist who warned about health impacts caused by mixing Covid vaccines. The WHO quickly clarified that it was advising individuals against doing so unless it was recommended by health authorities in their country.

But even though the Thai health ministry backs the idea, a hospital in Nonthaburi postponed a plan to give AstraZeneca jabs to people who had received Sinovac. Some hospitals in Chiang Mai also cancelled all vaccination services for a day in order to “end the confusion”.

Even in the US, where almost half the population is fully vaccinated, trust in vaccines is low. But now the Delta variant is spreading fast in areas where vaccination rates are very low. Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease specialist, lamented that the surge was being worsened by “ideological rigidity” that stopped people from getting shots.

In Thailand, public confusion about vaccine policies is understandable. In my view, it is driven mainly by deteriorating trust in the government’s handling of the prolonged pandemic as cases and death tolls skyrocket and strain the public health system.

But what disappoints me is why some doctors and medical experts are further fuelling confusion by making comments on social media. Some are even bluffing the government that they are doing a better job than the authorities in securing more effective vaccines. The state-owned drugmaker, meanwhile, is suing critics of its vaccine procurement. For what, I wonder?

At a time of crisis like this, the private sector and the government should instead be collaborating to help navigate the country out of danger, am I right? As the country opens more tourist destinations to vaccinated visitors from abroad, risk is increasing and we could see cases continue to surge — along with demand for vaccines.

What the public is desperate to see from our leaders and public servants is clear-cut and decisive policies as well as timely and effective implementation. Private organisations, particularly those in charge of health, should be invited and ready to take part in efforts to bring the pandemic under control. Everybody is in the same boat and there is no time to waste.

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