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Coronavirus : Vietnam approves Sinopharm’s vaccine, but will people take it?

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Only 1 per cent of Vietnam’s population has received at least one vaccine dose, trailing the efforts of poorer neighbours like Cambodia and Laos. The government will have to address anti-Chinese vaccine sentiment and people holding out for other brands as it tries to increase inoculation rate

Dang Duong, a 42-year-old restaurant owner in Ho Chi Minh City, is hoping everyone in Vietnam will be able to get vaccinated against Covid-19 soon.

Her business has been struggling without its main clientele of foreign residents and tourists since March, when the country shut its borders to keep out imported cases.

While Vietnam has mostly managed to avoid a mass crisis, new outbreaks since April have contributed to more than half its total caseload of over 8,000, and the country is also dealing with limited vaccine supplies and reports of a suspected “hybrid variant” made up of mutations first detected in Britain and India.

But Dang Duong says even as she wants Vietnam to achieve herd immunity, Chinese-made vaccines would be her last option.

“The made-in-China brand in general does not have a good reputation for quality, especially regarding the Covid-19 vaccine,” she said. “China’s behaviour in international politics over the past 10 years and in recent times shows that it is an unlikely partner worthy of trust and respect, which also greatly affects this country’s product brands.”

Vietnam’s inoculation drive currently includes the British-Swedish AstraZeneca shot and Russia’s Sputnik V jab, but with 1 per cent of the 98 million residents vaccinated, it trails the efforts of poorer Asean neighbours such as Cambodia and Laos.

The government has a deal with Pfizer for 31 million doses to be delivered later this year, and is also in talks with Moderna that would give it enough shots to reach the goal of vaccinating 70 per cent of the population.

Authorities on Thursday said they have secured 170 million doses so far from the WHO-backed Covax facility, AstraZeneca, Russia, Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech.

On Friday, Vietnam also approved the Covid-19 vaccine by China’s state-owned Sinopharm company, after months of deliberation.

But if Duong’s comments are anything to go by, the authorities will have an uphill task persuading people to take Sinopharm’s BIBP vaccine, even as cases continue to climb.

Vietnamese people have retained a cultural antipathy towards the Chinese, which stems from a centuries-long Chinese occupation that ended in the 10th century, and the 1979 border war that Beijing started in response to Hanoi invading Cambodia a year earlier.

In recent times, these sentiments have been reignited by an ongoing territorial dispute over the South China Sea, and Beijing’s activities on the Mekong River that have affected downstream countries, including Vietnam.

In the State of Southeast Asia 2021 survey, published in February by Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Vietnamese participants said they were least inclined to recognise China’s help for the region in dealing with the pandemic, out of a total of 1,032 people polled in 10 Southeast Asian countries.

The same survey, which involved academics, government officials and businesspeople respondents, showed Vietnamese and Filipinos had the highest levels of distrust towards China in the region, citing reasons such as Beijing using its economic and military power to threaten their country’s sovereignty and interests.

The news that the WHO has approved China’s Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines for emergency use, allowing them to be included in the global vaccine-sharing Covax initiative, did little to ease the resistance against Chinese-made vaccines in Vietnam.

Huynh Hung, a Ho Chi Minh City-based medical equipment importer, said he ‘’immediately’’ says no to Chinese vaccines when the question comes to mind. He admitted that his views are largely shaped by his experience in supplying foreign medical devices to hospitals in southern Vietnam.

“When it comes to their traditional medicines, I don’t deny that the Chinese are good at it,” the 48-year-old businessman said. “But I have not been convinced by their Western medical capacity.”

Hung said after the country’s reunification in 1975, Vietnam has traditionally imported medical instruments from the G7 group of rich nations and the European Union, while those shipped from China have only been more common in recent years.

“When doctors in the south pick equipment, they rarely choose Chinese goods,” he said.

According to Sinovac, some 600 million doses of its Covid-19 vaccine have been delivered in China and around the world, of which 430 million shots have been administered.

Sinopharm has not revealed how many recent doses of its BIBP vaccine it has made or the number of shots it will give to the Covax Facility, although data by the University of Oxford shows Sinovac has been used in 30 countries, while BIBP has been used in 55 countries.

Nguyen Khac Giang, a senior political researcher at Vietnam National University’s Vietnam Institute for Economic and Policy Research, said there were two concerns over buying Chinese vaccines.

“First is transparency. If we look at other countries, some are required to sign non-disclosure agreements in their contracts,” Nguyen said, referring to the case in Nepal.

Last month, the India Times reported that Sinopharm had a non-disclosure agreement for the Nepalese government that would prevent them from disclosing details such as the price of the vaccines – going against local laws for non-defence procurements by the government.

“Second, China also might use vaccines to pressure Vietnam on different areas – for example negotiations on the South China Sea,” Nguyen said.

“This is the practice Beijing has applied in other areas – such as the Belt and Road Initiative and foreign aid – and we can’t rule out that they would not do it in their vaccine diplomacy,” he said, stressing that his explanation was hypothetical due to the lack of available information.

Even before the WHO’s approval, hundreds of millions of Chinese-made doses had been sold or donated to mostly developing economies, amid China’s efforts to promote vaccine diplomacy. In Southeast Asia, countries like Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines’ vaccination efforts rely heavily on these donations.

Anti-Chinese vaccine sentiment aside, Vietnam’s slow vaccination rate may also be due to some people waiting for their preferred shot.

CoronaVac, the vaccine produced by Sinovac company, was found to be 51 per cent effective at preventing Covid-19 in late-stage trials among health care workers in Brazil. Other vaccines already approved by the WHO, including Sinopharm (78 per cent), Moderna (94.1 per cent) or Pfizer BioNTech (95 per cent), have been more effective. On the other hand, the results suggest CoronaVac is “100 per cent effective at preventing severe disease and death”, according to an article published on Friday on the scientific journal Nature.

Tran Nguyen Huy Tu, a 24-year-old student in Ho Chi Minh City, said he would wait for the arrival of the Pfizer vaccines.

“I would choose Pfizer because vaccines have a direct impact on my health and my immune system,” the Ho Chi Minh City resident said, adding that he had done his own research about its effects.

On VnExpress, one of Vietnam’s largest online private newspapers, one user said: “If there is no AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Moderna, Sputnik, I will wait for NanoCovax.”

NanoCovax is a home-grown Covid-19 vaccine candidate that has made the most progress out of three others being developed in Vietnam. It is expected to be rolled out in the fourth quarter of this year.

Others just want to be vaccinated, no matter where the shot comes from.

Pham Nguyet Anh, a purchasing manager at a water equipment company in Hanoi, said she was happy to receive any vaccine as long as she was satisfied with its safety.

“Even the Chinese kind. If it is good, I will use it,” said Pham Nguyet Anh.

The 27-year-old mother of a two-year-old son said she would do research on the potential side effects and consult her husband – who is a frontline medical worker at the Ministry of Health and has received AstraZeneca shots – to choose the best vaccine for the rest of her family.

Meanwhile, experts have cast doubt on claims that Vietnam has a “hybrid variant” made up of the Alpha and Delta mutations first recorded in Britain and India, respectively.

The health ministry last week said it could be responsible for the recent surge in infections.

But WHO officials in Vietnam on Thursday rejected this, telling the Nikkei Asia newspaper that there was no new variant in Vietnam “based on the WHO’s definition”, although the organisation would continue to monitor the situation.

“The variant detected is the Delta variant, with additional mutations, and needs more observation. We need to monitor during the next couple of weeks,” Park Kidong said.

Todd Pollack, a Hanoi-based infectious diseases specialist from the Harvard Medical School, said it made sense to wait for more evidence before concluding if the mutation identified on the Delta strain was a significant concern.

“As far as I am aware, this mutation has been found on only a handful of samples tested,” he said. “Continued monitoring and investigation are needed to understand whether this additional mutation has any impact on the characteristics of the virus, such as its transmissibility or virulence.

“Overall, whether this new mutation proves to be significant or not, it highlights the importance of accelerating vaccine roll-out here and in all countries to slow ongoing transmission and prevent opportunities for further mutations in the virus.”

By Sen Nguyen – The South China Morning Post – June 5, 2021

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