After slow starts, some Asian vaccination rates now soaring

Young people line up for receiving shot of the Sinovac’s vaccine at a Phnom Penh health center

When Cambodia rolled out COVID-19 vaccines, lines stretched down entire streets and people left their shoes out to save their places as they sheltered from the sun. But three months into its campaign, just 11% of the population had received at least one dose. In far wealthier Japan, it took two weeks longer to reach that level.

Now both countries boast vaccination rates that rank among the world’s best. They are two of several nations in the Asia-Pacific region that got slow starts to their immunization campaigns but have since 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. But all have experience with infectious diseases, like SARS, and strong vaccine-procurement programs, many of which knew to spread their risk by ordering from multiple manufacturers.

Most started vaccinating relatively late due to complacency amid low infection rates, initial supply issues and other factors. But by the time they did, soaring death tolls in the United States, Britain and India helped persuade even the skeptical to embrace the efforts.

“I did worry, but at the moment we are living under the threat of COVID-19. There is no option but to be vaccinated,” said Rath Sreymom, who rushed to get her daughter, 5-year-old Nuth Nyra, a shot once Cambodia opened its program to her age group this month.

Cambodia was one of the earlier countries in the region to start its vaccination program with a Feb. 10 launch — still two months after the United States and Britain began theirs. As elsewhere in the region, the rollout was slow, and by early May, as the delta variant started to spread rapidly, only 11% 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 U.K.’s.

Today Cambodia is 78% fully vaccinated — compared to 58% in the U.S. 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, from which grim images emerged of pyres of bodies outside overwhelmed crematoria.

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

Still, it took time to get sufficient supplies, and many countries in the region that started their programs later struggled even more, especially when the region’s major producer, India, suspended vaccine exports during its spring surge.

“Certainly getting the supply in place was really important for the countries that have done particularly well,” said John Fleming, the Asia-Pacific head of health for the Red Cross. “Then there’s the demand creation side — clearly this is about getting a buy-in from the population and also reaching out to marginalized groups.”

Early in the pandemic, many Asian countries imposed strict lockdown and travel rules that kept the virus largely at bay. As vaccines rolled out in force elsewhere, those low rates sometimes worked against them, giving some people the impression that getting the shot wasn’t urgent.

But when the virulent delta variant began ripping through the region, cases rose, encouraging people to sign up. MDT/AP

Categories Asia-Pacific