Asian nations scramble for COVID vaccines

·2-min read

Several Asian countries are scrambling to find alternative sources for COVID-19 inoculations after export restrictions by India left a World Health Organization-backed global vaccine-sharing program short of supplies.

South Korea, Indonesia and the Philippines are among countries to be hit by shipment delays to vaccines under the COVAX program, which was created mainly to ensure supplies for poorer countries.

"Our planned increase in daily vaccinations will be affected," Carlito Galvez, Philippines' vaccination chief, said.

India, the world's biggest vaccine maker, put a temporary hold on exports of AstraZeneca's vaccine as officials focus on meeting rising domestic demand.

The Serum Institute of India was due to deliver 90 million doses to COVAX over March and April and program facilitators warned shipment delays were inevitable.

South Korea confirmed it would only receive 432,000 doses of the 690,000 it had been promised, with delivery delayed until around the third week of April.

"There's uncertainty over global vaccine supplies but we're working on a plan to ensure no disruptions in the second quarter and making efforts to secure more vaccines," Kim Ki-nam, head of South Korea's COVID-19 vaccination task force team, said.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte loosened government restrictions on private sector imports of vaccines, pleading with companies to obtain supplies no matter the cost as his country battles a resurgence of the pandemic.

In Vietnam, officials have similarly asked the private sector to step in after their COVAX supplies were slashed by 40 per cent to 811,200 doses and shipments pushed back by weeks.

In Indonesia, health ministry official Siti Nadia Tarmizi said 10.3 million doses from COVAX were likely to be delayed until May.

India has not provided details on the length of its export curb but UNICEF, a distributing partner of COVAX, said at the weekend that deliveries are expected to resume by May.

India's decision is the latest in a series of setbacks for the COVAX facility, relied on by 64 poorer countries, after production glitches and a lack of funding contribution from wealthier nations.

China and Russia are primed to step into the breach.

"We have good diplomatic relations with China and Russia and we are asking if we can have access to their vaccines in April," the Philippines' Galvez said.

The spate of export curbs is also being felt by wealthier countries that are reliant on foreign manufacturing, including Japan, where the national vaccine rollout has been slow due to the limited number of Pfizer vaccines shipped from Europe.

"Some people are using vaccines for diplomacy, some people are trying to prioritise. Some people are buying like three to five times as many vaccines compared to their population. That's unnecessary," Japan's vaccine minister, Taro Kono, said.

"We really need to have the global leaders sit down and think this is a global issue, not the domestic issue, and try to solve this together."