Vietnam to Test Vaccine as Neighbors Weigh Coronavirus

Vietnam to Test Vaccine as Neighbors Weigh Coronavirus A poster in Vietnam's capital Hanoi urges care to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in an April 29, 2020 photo.

Vietnam is set to begin tests this week on a domestically produced coronavirus vaccine, a government led-effort that marks a first in Southeast Asia, starting with 60 volunteers, state media said on Wednesday.

Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia are all struggling with the economic fallout from the pandemic, despite having relatively low numbers of cases and deaths, with Vietnam reporting 1,405 confirmed cases and 0 deaths, Laos reporting 41 confirmed cases and 0 deaths, and Cambodia reporting 362 cases and 0 deaths.

Called Nanocovax, Vietnam’s COVID-19 vaccine was produced by the country’s Nanogen Company and Vietnam’s Military Medical Academy under direction from the Ministry of Science and Technology.

Three other vaccines are now being developed by other companies, with human trials of the first scheduled for March pending government approval, media reports said.

Beginning Thursday, subjects aged 18 to 50 selected from a larger group will receive two intramuscular injections of the vaccine or of a placebo, with intervals of 28 days between each injection and volunteers observed for 56 days by health officials who evaluate the effectiveness of the vaccine.

Speaking to RFA, Vietnamese citizens welcomed the news of this week’s test, with some voicing pride in their country’s efforts to stop the pandemic’s spread and others saying they would still fear to try the vaccine for themselves until its safety is assured.

One resident in the capital Hanoi urged nationwide inoculations using the country’s vaccine “if it succeeds after the human trial phase,” adding though that Vietnam must still continue testing to find the best and most effective vaccine, “and not import vaccines from other countries.”

A resident of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly called Saigon, said he hoped tests of the vaccine would succeed. “Disadvantaged and low-income people should be offered special prices, though,” he said.

In the coastal city of Da Nang, two residents expressed doubt in the safety of Vietnam’s vaccine in its trial run, with one saying he “would not dare to join in the first phase of human trials,” and the other saying that though Vietnam has largely succeeded so far in controlling the spread of COVID-19, “I do not completely believe that Vietnam will succeed with its made-in-Vietnam COVID-19 vaccine.”

Laos looks to Russia

In neighboring Laos, authorities are considering providing a Russian-made COVID-19 vaccine, Sputnik V, for country-wide inoculations once trials of the vaccine inside Russia are completed and the vaccine is certified as effective and safe, state media say.

Now being tested on 40,000 volunteers in 45 medical centers across Russia, the vaccine—if approved for use in Laos—will be produced inside the country and tested on local volunteers before being distributed more widely, media sources said.

The northwestern Lao province of Bokeo went on full lockdown this week amid renewed COVID scares following the arrival more than a week ago of two infected Chinese nationals who entered the province from Myanmar.

On Dec. 5, provincial authorities and the Lao Ministry of Health ordering the province to be locked down for at least 14 days from Dec. 14, a member of the province’s Taskforce Committee for COVID-19 Control and Prevention told RFA’s Lao Service on Monday.

“All traditional events are suspended, and entertainment venues and restaurants are closed, and boats are not allowed to go across the Mekong River,” the task force member said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“The authorities are patrolling the river 24/7 because our province is at high risk of getting COVID-19, which is now spreading in the town of Thakhilek in Myanmar.”

Schools, gyms, karaoke bars, night markets, beer bars, and spas in Bokeo’s Tonpeung district have now also been closed, the task force member said, adding, “If the COVID-19 situation doesn’t improve, the lockdown will be extended.”

One Tonpheung resident told RFA that all villages in the district are now separately locked down and cut off from each other, “and traveling between villages is prohibited.”

“People are too afraid to go out,” he said.

“My restaurant was shut down a week ago in compliance with the order, and all other entertainment venues like massage parlors are also closed,” a restaurant owner in Tonpheung said on Dec. 15. “Right now, the authorities are looking for people who were in contact with those two Chinese.”

The transport of food and other necessities by cargo boat or truck is also now restricted, with special permission from provincial authorities required before anything can be moved, a shipment worker in Bokeo said.

Cambodia looks to WHO

In Cambodia, jailed opposition party members and other prisoners are petitioning the authorities for release from confinement, citing crowded and unhealthy conditions in the country’s prisons and concerns over the possible spread of the COVID virus.

Rong Vichea, nephew of jailed rights and border activist Rong Chhun, said his uncle and other prisoners are living in tightly closed spaces in violation of orders from the Ministry of Health for proper distancing and monitoring for disease.

“The prison doesn’t conduct tests for COVID-19, and the cells are unhygienic,” Rong Vichea said following his first visit to Rong Chhun since the outbreak of the virus earlier this year. “He has asked for his release on bail,” he added.

Around 40 Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) members now held in jail are also asking to be freed amid concerns over infection, Sok Polyma—the wife of one of those detained—told RFA.

“We know there has been a COVID-19 outbreak in the community, so they should be released because they are also Cambodians,” she said. “I urge the courts to let the political prisoners go, because they are innocent. I am very concerned about COVID-19.”

Cambodian prison authorities closely monitor prisoners for signs of infection in order to stop the spread of the disease, though, Prison Department spokesman Nuth Savna told RFA.

“When we suspect anyone of having symptoms, we test them. We are working on this every day. But so far we have had no issue with this,” he said, adding that in the colder weather prisoners are catching the flu but not COVID-19.

Ny Sokha, a worker with the Cambodian rights group ADHOC and former prisoner in Cambodia’s Prey Sar Prison, said however that confinement in closed spaces will make it impossible to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 in the country’s jails, where diseases can spread very quickly.

“In the past, when someone had the flu or a cough, everyone got infected,” he said. “This was my experience while I was detained.”

Minister of Health Man Bunheng refused comment on why Cambodia has not asked China for its COVID-19 vaccine, now being tested on volunteers, but government spokesman Phay Siphan said on Wednesday that Cambodia cares only that vaccines given to its citizens are approved by the World Health Organization.

“Cambodia will not allow any country, including China, to conduct experiments [on Cambodians] as if they were rabbits or rats. [Prime Minister] Hun Sen does not want Cambodians to be used for medical experiments,” he said.

Political commentator Meas Nee said that Hun Sen will be buying vaccines instead from the U.N.-backed COVAX facility, which provides subsidized vaccines for many poorer countries.

“I’m not sure how many countries, including Cambodia, have confidence in Chinese vaccines. We don’t have any evidence to say their vaccine won’t be effective, but I see that Cambodia will be buying vaccines [approved by] the World Health Organization, and these will be discounted.”

“So Cambodia will be able to afford to get all its people vaccinated,” he said.

Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese, Lao, and Khmer Services. Translated by Huy Le, Max Avary, and Samean Yun. Written in English by Richard Finney.


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