Vaccine reluctance in Asia lagging US and Europe as instances rise

A doctor walks past the banner announcing a Covid-19 vaccination campaign in Hyderabad, India on May 28, 2021.

Noah Seelam | AFP | Getty Images

SINGAPORE – Asia Pacific is struggling to vaccinate its population as Covid-19 infections are increasing rapidly in many places in the region, some at record levels.

Many Asian governments have problems securing vaccines, said Benjamin Cowling, a professor at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health. Also, early successes in containing the coronavirus in Asia may have led people to view vaccination with less urgency, he added.

“If we have had very few infections in the past year, the idea is that Covid is not such a risk and we could go to zero (cases) if we just did the face mask and social distancing – no rush to vaccinate. Hesitation was one big problem, ”Cowling, who heads the school’s epidemiology and biostatistics department, told CNBC’s Squawk Box Asia on Tuesday.

In short, Asia has gone from being a flagship of containment successes to being a laggard when it comes to adopting vaccinations.

The region is now experiencing a renewed increase in infections.

India, Nepal, Malaysia, Japan and Taiwan are among those who broke records in the number of daily cases in the past month – prompting authorities to impose new restrictions in an attempt to contain the cases.

Asia’s Covid vaccination

Countries in the Asia-Pacific region have combined about 23.8 doses of Covid vaccine per 100 people, according to CNBC analysis of data compiled by the June 1 stats website Our World in Data.

That’s well below the roughly 61.4 doses per 100 people in North America and the 48.5 doses per 100 people in Europe, the data showed. Africa is the region with the slowest vaccination campaign, and data suggests that only 2.5 doses were given for every 100 people.

Economists at French bank Natixis have been tracking vaccine shipments and vaccination progress in the Asia-Pacific region. They said in a press release last month that while supply shortages have been a major contributor to slow vaccination in the region, few economies are currently facing this problem.

The economists named Indonesia, Thailand, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam as “those who have not yet received the necessary doses for mass vaccination”.

“Public demand remains weak, however,” said the Natixis report. “Skepticism about the newly developed vaccines seems to be a common reason for reluctance around the world. But it is even more so in Asia, where more effective containment has resulted in less urgency.”

Leader and straggler

In the Asia-Pacific region, Mongolia and Singapore lead the way with around 97 and 69 total vaccinations per 100 inhabitants, respectively, according to Our World in Data.

The data showed that many border and emerging countries such as Vietnam and Afghanistan are lagging behind.

According to a report by research firm Fitch Solutions, several frontier and emerging markets in Asia are relying on COVAX – a global vaccine exchange initiative – for Covid vaccines.

But supplies to COVAX are now at risk because India has restricted exports of vaccines, the report said. Located in India is the vaccine maker Serum Institute India, which is a key supplier of Covid doses for the initiative.

If Indian exports do not resume soon, many low- and low- and middle-income countries that rely on COVAX will experience “further delays” in their vaccination progress, warned Fitch solutions.

Recovery in Asia vs. West

Based on current vaccination rates, Natixis economists predict that this year only Singapore and mainland China will be able to vaccinate 70% of their respective countries’ populations – a similar schedule to the US and UK

This is the threshold that some medical experts say is necessary to achieve “herd immunity” when the virus stops being transmitted quickly because most people are immune from vaccination or after infection.

Asian economies still struggling for vaccine deliveries may not hit that threshold until 2025 or beyond, the economists said.

Slow advances in vaccination will hit some Asian economies harder than others, Natixis economists said. They said the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia had the biggest Urgency of vaccination due to lackluster handling of the pandemic or a huge economic burden from tourism.

“In short, Asia has gone from being a flagship of containment successes to being a laggard in vaccination adoption,” said Natixis, adding that social distancing and cross-border restrictions will remain in place in the region longer compared to the west.

“The broader economic reopening in the West, based on a much faster roll-out of vaccines, particularly for the US and increasingly also for the EU, could exacerbate divergence and make Asia more vulnerable and less favorable to investment on its path to recovery. “

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