Some Asian nations are now among the world’s best at covid vaccinations: NPR

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Young people line up to get shots of the Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, one of several Asian countries whose vaccination rate is now among the best in the world.

Heng Sinith / AP


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Heng Sinith / AP


Young people line up to get shots of the Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, one of several Asian countries whose vaccination rate is now among the best in the world.

Heng Sinith / AP

PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA (AP) – When Cambodia rolled out covid-19 vaccines, lines stretched along entire streets and people left their shoes to save their places when protected from the sun. But three months after the campaign, only 11% of the population had received at least one dose. In far richer Japan, it took two weeks longer to reach that level.

Both countries now boast vaccination rates that are ranked among the best in the world. They are two of several nations in the Asia-Pacific region that have had slow starts for their vaccination campaigns but have since zoomed past the United States and many nations in Europe.

Countries with high numbers include both richer and poorer, some with larger populations and some with smaller ones. But everyone has experience with infectious diseases, such as SARS, and strong vaccine procurement programs, many of which knew they could spread their risk by ordering from multiple manufacturers.

Most started vaccinating relatively late due to complacency among low infection rates, initial delivery problems and other factors. But when they did, rising death tolls in the United States, Britain and India also helped persuade skeptics to embrace the effort.

“I was worried, but at the moment we are living under the threat of covid-19. There is no alternative but to get vaccinated,” said Rath Sreymom, who hurried to pick up her daughter, 5-year-old Nuth Nyra, a shot near Cambodia opened its program for its age group this month.

Cambodia was one of the former countries in the region to launch its vaccination program with a launch on February 10 – still two months after the United States and Britain began theirs. As elsewhere in the region, expansion was slow, and in early May, when the delta variant began to spread rapidly, only 11% of its 16 million people had at least their first chance, according to Our World in Data. That is about half the rate achieved in the United States during the same time frame and one third of that of the United Kingdom.

Today, Cambodia is 78% fully vaccinated – compared to 58% in the United States. It now offers booster shots and is considering expanding its program to 3- and 4-year-olds.

From the beginning, it has seen a strong demand for the vaccine, with the launch to the public in April coinciding with a massive increase in cases in India, from which gloomy images emerged of bonfires of bodies outside overwhelmed crematoria.

Prime Minister Hun Sen used his close ties with Beijing to obtain nearly 37 million doses from China, some of which were donated. He declared last week that Cambodia’s “vaccination victory” could not have happened without them. The country also received large donations from the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom and from the international COVAX program.

Still, it took time to get enough supplies, and many countries in the region that started their programs later struggled even more, especially when the region’s largest producer, India, cut off vaccine exports in the spring.

“Of course, it is very important to have access in place for the countries that have done particularly well,” said John Fleming, Asia-Pacific Health Director of the Red Cross. “Then there is the demand-creating side – this is clearly about getting a purchase from the population and also reaching out to marginalized groups.”

Early in the pandemic, many Asian countries introduced strict lock-in and travel rules that kept the virus largely out. When vaccines were rolled out elsewhere, the low numbers sometimes worked against them, giving some people the impression that it was not urgent to get the syringe.

But as the virulent delta variant began to tear through the region, cases increased, encouraging people to register.

Some countries, such as Malaysia, made extra efforts to ensure that even the most difficult to reach groups were offered the vaccine. It enlisted the help of the Red Cross to give shots to people living illegally in the country and other groups who may have feared showing up for a government-sponsored vaccination.

“We made the vaccine available to everyone, without any questions,” said Professor Sazaly Abu Bakar, director of the Tropical Infectious Diseases and Research Education Center.

As with Cambodia and Japan, Malaysia continued for the first three months, giving less than 5% of its 33 million people its first dose during that time, according to Our World in Data.

As cases increased, however, Malaysia bought more doses and established hundreds of vaccination centers, including mega-hubs that can deliver up to 10,000 shots a day. The country now has 76% of the population fully vaccinated.

To date, dozens of Asia-Pacific countries have vaccinated or are in the process of vaccinating more than 70% of their population, including Australia, China, Japan and Bhutan. In Singapore, 92% are fully vaccinated.

However, some countries in Asia have continued to struggle. India celebrated giving its billionth covid-19 vaccine dose in October, but with a population of almost 1.4 billion, corresponding to a fully vaccinated share of 29%. Indonesia started earlier than most but has also stumbled, largely due to the challenge of expanding its campaign across the thousands of islands that make up its archipelago.

Japan’s vaccine program was notoriously slow – moving forward while the world wondered if it could hold the Summer Olympics. It did not begin until mid-February as it required further clinical trials on the Japanese before using the vaccines – a move that was widely criticized as unnecessary. It also initially suffered from delivery problems.

But then it turned a corner. Then-Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga brought in military media personnel to run mass inoculation centers in Tokyo and Osaka, bending laws to allow dentists, paramedics and lab technicians to give shots along with doctors and nurses.

The number of daily doses given rose to about 1.5 million in July, and the country is now about 76% completely inoculated. Much of Japan’s success depends on public response, said Makoto Shimoaraiso, a senior official responsible for the country’s covid-19 response.

Many in Japan are generally skeptical of vaccines, but after seeing deaths skyrocket around the world, it has not been a problem.

In fact, retiree Kiyoshi Goto is already calling for his next shot, as he looks cautiously at the growing cases in Europe.

“I want a booster syringe because our antibody levels are falling,” said the 75-year-old.

In Phnom Penh, Nuth Nyra was just happy to have her first and said she was afraid of covid-19 before – but no more.

“I felt a little pain when I got the shot,” the young girl said in a soft voice at a vaccination center on the outskirts of Cambodia’s capital. “But I did not cry.”

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