When the coronavirus spread around the world in 2020, rich nations scrambled to create and procure vaccines that could save their citizens. Millions of doses of vaccines — even before they were proven completely effective — were already reserved.
For a developing country like Vietnam, it took a little while to negotiate, buy or get donations. On February 24, 2021, the first doses of AstraZeneca vaccines landed at the Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City. The over 117,000 doses of vaccines were used to start a historic vaccination campaign on March 8. It was considerably too few, not even enough to give frontline health workers the protection they so needed. But it was a significant move, especially because Vietnam was among the first countries in Southeast Asia to have access to the vaccine amidst a shortage of supply.
“We did our best to deliver 30 million doses ahead of schedule in only 10 months, helping to protect millions of Vietnamese,” said Nitin Kapoor, the general director and chairman of AstraZeneca in Vietnam.
Vietnam also got other vaccine donations from the COVAX facility and foreign governments such as the United States, Japan, and China. Overseas Vietnamese also raised funds to secure vaccines for their homeland.
Now a year after the first-ever COVID-19 vaccine was inoculated, Vietnam is among the world’s most highly vaccinated countries. The Ministry of Health said on March 25 that over 77.8 million out of 98 million people have already been fully vaccinated, that’s already more than 79% of the whole population.
Vietnam now targets to finish administering the third dose for adults and the second dose for children aged 12 to 17 within the first quarter of the year. Before September, kids aged 5 to 11 may be getting their first doses.
And as the country makes big leaps towards a new normal — from the full border reopening on March 15, resumption of pre-pandemic visa policies to the lifting of quarantine and vaccination rules for visitors — the government is now talking about administering a fourth dose to adults. Specific plans aren’t in place yet, but such strategy is necessary given the uncertainty of the pandemic, explained Mr. Kapoor.
To better understand why a fourth dose of COVID-19 vaccine is needed and if the Vietnamese government made the right decision to scrap quarantine and vaccination requirements for all inbound travelers, Vietcetera talked with Mr. Nitin Kapoor of AstraZeneca Vietnam.
Vietnam is among the countries with the highest vaccination rates. As an expert who’s closely watched the vaccination progress, is it really a “success?”
The Vietnamese government is absolutely right to prioritize vaccination as one of the most effective and fastest routes to surmount the pandemic. Their public health messaging is highly regarded across the world for its consistency, clarity, and accuracy, which boosted vaccine confidence in the country. The government’s vaccine diplomacy has also been top-notched, securing dozens of millions of doses through leveraging Vietnam’s reputable position and robust multilateral relationships. But all of this wouldn’t have been possible without the tireless efforts of healthcare professionals across all levels but especially in the grassroots, community network, who “went to every house and knocked on every door,” even though their public holidays. Without them, these shots wouldn’t have gotten into people’s arms so quickly. I sincerely thank them for all they’ve done to get us to where we are today.
Has Vietnam already achieved herd immunity?
Scientists have had different views on whether herd immunity is achievable since the emergence of the Delta variant last year. Now with Omicron, which is even more transmissible, you’re not guaranteed to never have it again after being infected once. However, the goal of the Vietnamese government was to achieve herd immunity when 70% of the population are vaccinated. We’ve definitely reached that target and even beyond, as nearly 50% of us have been boosted. COVID cases have grown exponentially since Tết, but we’re able to live a ‘new normal’ life now as severe cases and deaths are under control thanks to high vaccination rates, no longer overstretching the health system.
The government is now thinking of inoculating a fourth dose. How many vaccine doses do we need to be immune to the virus?
Scientists and regulatory agencies across the world are looking into the fourth/annual dose strategy. A few countries have already approved administering the fourth jab for certain groups of patients who are elderly, immunocompromised, and thus vulnerable. Unpredictability is what comes with any pandemic. We’d like to think that Omicron is signaling the end of it, life can return to the way it was, we can reunite with our families without worrying it may endanger them. But it’s hard, isn’t it? We’ve already seen the emergence of Deltacron which is a mix of Delta and Omicron, as well as other variants of interest that are being studied and monitored.
We fully understand the importance and need for a fourth-dose boosting and are actively working to investigate fourth-dose boosters in clinical trials for both homologous and heterologous schedules. It’s encouraging to hear from the Ministry of Health leaders that a fourth jab is being considered first for high-risk groups, and later for the whole society. In addition, other solutions such as monoclonal antibodies can be provided to protect vulnerable people. Regarding further booster doses, we’ll have to continue studying the way this virus mutates, and always be prepared to tweak and transform current solutions so that they can prolong the protection for our society.
However, amidst a high vaccination rate, the number of daily COVID-19 cases is still very high. What’s the reason behind this?
The culprit of this outbreak is the Omicron variant, which is known to be a lot more transmissible than original strains. Its BA.2 sub-variant is the most dominant in Vietnam right now according to the Ministry of Health’s data. Its reproductive number is around 10, meaning that one infected person can go on to infect another 10 people.
All governments have to balance between keeping the economy open and stopping this outbreak, and I think Vietnam did the right thing when we chose to live safely with the virus in the context where the majority of the population had been fully vaccinated. Most vaccines currently in use continue to be effective against severe disease, hospitalizations, and deaths, which explains why we have on average over 250,000 infections a day, but severe cases remain under control. We’re actually starting to see a slowing trend in terms of caseloads in the last few days, hopefully signaling that this wave has peaked and will start to decline.
Did the Vietnam government make the right decision to fully open the borders?
I trust the Vietnamese government’s decision to reopen our borders to visitors at this time, though of course, with certain safety measures still applied such as pre-approval testing, health declaration, and monitoring while the traveler is in the country. Tourism is a major part of our economy. Vietnam has done a great job containing the virus compared to many other countries, it’s about time we accelerate the economic recovery. However, it’s important that we remain vigilant and closely examine the evolving situation to be able to make timely policy changes where necessary.
To you, is it really safe to travel around Vietnam now?
I’d say it’s relatively safe now for healthy individuals. However, the reality is different for a portion of our population who are at high risk of severe COVID-19 because they are immunocompromised, unable to mount an adequate response to vaccines, or because they are unable to take a vaccine.
Most of the severe cases or deaths recorded these days belong to this vulnerable group. They are still living in fear and anxiety. So, as a society, we hold the responsibility to address their unmet needs for an extra layer of protection. AstraZeneca is proud that we are working closely with the government, Ministry of Health, and partners to deliver our monoclonal antibodies to patients in need.