A health official sprays disinfectant on the first batch of AstraZeneca/Oxford Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine shipment

A health official sprays disinfectant on the first batch of AstraZeneca/Oxford Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine shipment after its arrival at the Tan Son Nhat airport in Ho Chi Minh City on 24 February 2021. (Photo: Phu Nguyen / AFP)

Challenges Facing Vietnam’s Covid-19 Vaccination Drive

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Vietnam is accelerating efforts to secure adequate vaccine supplies amidst a resurgence of Covid-19 infections in the country.

The fourth wave of Covid-19 infections in Vietnam, which started in late April, is the country’s most serious outbreak thus far. This wave had caused 5,758 infections as of 7 June, accounting for about two-thirds of the total number of infections in Vietnam. More importantly, it has spread to industrial parks in Bac Giang and Bac Ninh provinces, causing disruptions to the operation of many factories in these important industrial hubs. The outbreak drove home the importance of the Covid-19 vaccination programme, which Vietnam is striving to accelerate after a disappointingly slow start.

Vietnam started its vaccination programme on 8 March 2021, focusing on frontline workers. As of 5 June 2021, the number of people receiving at least one dose of vaccine was 1.24 million, accounting for only 1.3% of the total population. This is the lowest rate among the ten ASEAN member countries.

Vietnam’s slow vaccination roll-out can be attributed to three main reasons. First, the country’s relatively successful containment of the virus in 2020 by shutting down its borders and conducting aggressive quarantine and contact tracing regimes generated some complacency. Prior to the latest outbreak, there was relatively little sense of urgency to aggressively accelerate the vaccination drive. 

Second, four Vietnamese companies are developing local Covid-19 vaccines. Among them, Nanogen’s NanoCovax vaccine, which will undergo phase-3 trials later this month, is making the most progress. Vietnamese officials may have therefore put their bet on the success of domestic vaccines, which they think would help Vietnam reduce reliance on imported vaccines and provide a nationalistic boost to its international image. 

As of 5 June 2021, the number of people receiving at least one dose of vaccine was 1.24 million, accounting for only 1.3% of the total population. This is the lowest rate among the ten ASEAN member countries.

Third, like most of the Global South, Vietnam suffers from the global shortage of vaccine supply. Although the private-owned Vaccine Corporation Vietnam (VNVC) placed an order for 30 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine in 2020, the supply from this arrangement has so far remained limited. So is the vaccine supply for the country under the COVAX Facility. Due to Vietnam’s hitherto success in containing the virus, the country was not prioritized by vaccine producers and international partners.

The scale and serious effects of the fourth wave have forced the Vietnamese government to accelerate vaccination as a crucial, fundamental and long-term strategy to overcome the pandemic. Great efforts have been made within a short period of time to secure as much vaccine supply as possible. Rather than holding the government’s monopoly over vaccine import, Vietnam has encouraged all relevant stakeholders, especially private companies and foreign investors, to help acquire vaccines for the country. On 5 June, an initiative, which was first promoted by Ho Chi Minh City, was officially launched by the government to raise US$1.1 billion from the public and the business community to cover the cost of the vaccination programme. The initiative has attracted more than US$250 million in pledged donations after only a few days. 

At the international level, Vietnam has worked actively through diplomatic channels to secure more vaccine supplies. For example, the United States has decided to donate to Vietnam 500,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccines. Japan is also reportedly preparing to donate vaccines to Vietnam. Despite some initial hesitation due to safety concerns and probably geopolitical considerations, the Ministry of Health on 4 June decided to approve the Sinopharm vaccine for emergency use and may approve the Sinovac vaccine in the coming months. Unofficial news indicated that China has pledged to provide Vietnam with 500,000 doses of Sinopharm vaccine.

Thanks to these efforts, the Ministry of Health announced on 3 June that Vietnam had secured commitments by relevant suppliers to provide 120 million doses within 2021, including from Moderna (5 million doses), Sputnik V (20 million doses), AstraZeneca (30 million doses), Pfizer (31 million doses), and the COVAX Facility (38.9 million doses). Vietnam is also reportedly in talks with Russian partners to produce Sputnik V vaccines in the country. With the NanoCovax vaccine entering phase-3 trials soon, there is hope that Vietnam will also benefit from domestic sources.

Nevertheless, major challenges remain for Vietnam’s vaccination drive. First, given the global supply shortage and the intense competition among countries to secure their share, partners will likely fail to provide Vietnam with all the committed doses in a timely manner. By end-2021, having 40 million doses delivered should still be considered a major success for Vietnam. Second, while Vietnamese producers may be on track to have their domestic vaccines successfully developed, their production capacity remains in doubt. For example, Nanogen, the most promising candidate to successfully develop a domestic vaccine, is a research lab with no major manufacturing facility and will have to rely on its partners for vaccine production. 

While its vaccination roll-out has gained stronger momentum in recent months, Vietnam has a long way to go to have the programme successfully completed. In the meantime, more infection waves should be expected, and the economy may continue to suffer. To mitigate the economic impact, priority should be given to factory workers, who play a critical role in keeping the national economy afloat but work in conditions highly vulnerable to major outbreaks. Due to the ongoing and new waves of infections, Vietnam may not be able to meet this year’s growth target of 6.5%. However, if the vaccination programme is accelerated and implemented properly, economic damages may be contained, and the country may still be on track to achieve a growth rate of 4-5%.

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