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Explained: How Asia-Pacific leads in Covid vaccination despite a slow start

To date, about a dozen countries in the Asia-Pacific region have vaccinated more than 70 per cent of their populations or are on the cusp of doing so, including Australia, China, Japan and Bhutan.

By: Explained Desk | Kolkata |
November 23, 2021 2:27:02 pm
People wait to be processed after arriving to receive the Moderna coronavirus vaccine at the newly-opened mass vaccination center in Tokyo, Japan. (AP)

Covid-19 vaccination campaigns were never a hit among Asia-Pacific nations in the initial stages. Vaccination lagged and most countries remained committed to some of the world’s toughest restrictions for much of the year to curb the spread of the virus.

However, as the year rolled, vaccination campaigns gained momentum and now, many of these countries boast the best rates in the world. Despite a slow start, many of these nations in the Asia-Pacific region have zoomed past the United States and many nations in Europe. The countries with high rates include both richer and poorer ones, some with larger populations and some with smaller. However, all have experience with infectious diseases, like SARS, and strong vaccine-procurement programmes, many of which knew to spread their risk by ordering from multiple manufacturers.

The success story

Cambodia was one of the earlier countries in the region to start its vaccination programme with a February 10 launch, which is still two months after the United States and Britain started theirs. As elsewhere in the region, the rollout was slow, and by early May, as the Delta variant started to spread rapidly, only 11 per cent of its 16 million people had gotten at least their first shot, according to Our World in Data. That’s about half the rate reached in the United States during the same timeframe and a third of the UK’s.

Today Cambodia is 78 per cent fully vaccinated, compared to 58 per cent in the US. It is now offering booster shots and looking at extending its program to 3-and-4-year-olds.

From the beginning, it has seen strong demand for the vaccine, with the rollout to the general public in April coinciding with a massive surge of cases in India. Prime Minister Hun Sen leveraged his close ties with Beijing to procure nearly 37 million doses from China, some of which were donated. He even declared that Cambodia’s “victory of vaccination” could not have happened without them. The country also received large donations from the US, Japan, Britain and from the international COVAX programme.

Japan is another country where vaccination picked up at a rapid pace. Its inoculation drive was notoriously slow, inching along while the world wondered if it would be able to hold the Olympics. It didn’t start until mid-February because it required additional clinical testing on Japanese people before using the vaccines — a move that was widely criticized as unnecessary. It was also initially hit with supply issues.
However, things changed when the then Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga brought in military medical staff to operate mass inoculation centers in Tokyo and Osaka and bent laws to allow dentists, paramedics and lab technicians to give shots alongside doctors and nurses. The number of daily doses given rose to about 1.5 million in July, and the country is now at about 76 per cent fully inoculated.

As with Cambodia and Japan, Malaysia plodded along in its first three months, giving less than 5 per cent of its 33 million people their first dose in that time, according to Our World in Data.

When cases surged, however, Malaysia bought more doses and established hundreds of vaccination centers, including mega hubs capable of providing up to 10,000 shots a day. The country now has 76 per cent of its population fully vaccinated.

To date, about a dozen countries in the Asia-Pacific region have vaccinated more than 70 per cent of their populations or are on the cusp of doing so, including Australia, China, Japan and Bhutan. In Singapore, 92 per cent are fully vaccinated.

Is all good in the Asia-Pacific region then?

Despite some countries vaccinating almost its entire population with at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, there are still many which are seriously lagging behind. According to research by an Australian think tank, Papua New Guinea will have vaccinated only a third of its adult population by 2026 if it continues at its current rate.

Similarly, while Palau has given 99 percent of residents at least one vaccine dose, the Solomon Islands are not expected to fully vaccinate their adult population until April 2026, while it is estimated to take Vanuatu until then to vaccinate 86 percent of its adult population.

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