Logistics and Regulatory Red Tape Hinder COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout in Southeast Asia
Can Southeast Asia meet the challenges for the COVID-19 vaccine rollout? In Malaysia, a 550km trial run was conducted in rural Sarawak on the Island of Borneo. The test is to see if the cold chain can handle the distribution of ultracold COVID-19 vaccines. Indonesian President Joko Widodo rolled up his sleeve on national television to receive his jab.
Across Southeast Asia the race is on to immunize the population. Thee large majority of which are in rural locations, with difficult access due to poor infrastructure. In addition, the regions countries are known for their red tape and bureaucracy which is another hurdle to overcome.
These bottlenecks, in both the cold chain logistics capabilities and legislative approvals are exasperating an already difficult task. Unlike past mass immunization campaigns like TB and Polio, there were captive audiences. Children for example, and programs could be rolled out through schools.
In Israel, 25% of the population were needed to be immunized before a slow in infections was noticed. The Indonesian government has stated its aim to vaccinate 2/3 of its population, approximately 270 million people, in order to halt the progress of the virus. The target is to achieve this in 15 months. While in urbanized populations vaccination rates of 1 million people per day are possible, this is not achievable when dealing with rural populations spread over remote islands. Think of a country like the Philippines, with 7,000 islands and over 100 million people, the logistics challenges of transporting ultracold vaccines to some areas is huge. Alternative vaccines that are easier to distribute are thus being explored and developed.
Malaysia has targeted vaccination coverage of 32 million people over an 18 month period. The test run of the COVID-19 vaccine delivery stared in Belgium at the Pfizer plant and ended at a rural health clinic in Belaga, Sarawak. The rehearsal was a success with the -70°C cold chain remaining unbroken.
The more economically developed countries in SE Asia, such as Singapore and Hong Kong, will roll out their vaccines much faster. Already Singapore started its vaccination program in December 2020 and aims to have all its citizens immunized by September 2021. Hong Kong and Taiwan are expected to achieve their vaccination goals by the end of 2021.
On the current course, Vietnam and Thailand will not be expected to have immunized sufficient numbers to reach “herd immunity” until the middle of 2022. Thailand is importing 2 million doses of the Sinovac vaccine to be delivered by April 2021. These are for key workers only. Their immunization plans however focus on producing the AstraZeneca vaccine at their domestic plant Siam Bioscience.
Laos and Myanmar falling further behind their neighbors with projections taking them until 2025.
In the Philippines, the government has made few firm plans for the vaccination program. Although it is clear that the course has been set for purchasing a foreign vaccine, there has been little done other than securing half a million doses of the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccine for delivery in February, and 2 million doses of China’s Sinovac to be delivered early 2022. This for a country of 108 million people puts the Philippines way behind some of its neighbors. Critics say it is due to a lack of coordination amongst policymakers. But it should also be remembered the Philippines was involved with the 2016 Dengue Fever jab from France’s Sanofi, which resulted in child deaths, legal disputes, and the pulling of the vaccine. There has since been an uneasiness about foreign vaccines. TB immunization rates fell from 90% in 2009 to only 69% by 2019.