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Covid-19 coronavirus: Could slow vaccine rollout undermine New Zealand’s success?

Somchai Maneetawat’s restaurant is on the brink of collapse. The 38-year-old’s business in the Thai tourist hotspot of Phuket would normally be thriving but profits have plunged by 95 per cent as the Southeast Asian nation battles a sweeping third wave of coronavirus infections.

The golden sands of Phuket are supposed to reopen in July, leading the way as the first province of Thailand to scrap quarantine rules for vaccinated visitors in an important step towards reviving the country’s £46 billion ($90 billion) tourism industry.

But after a successful first year of containing the pandemic, record-breaking numbers of Covid-19 cases – spiking at 4887 on Thursday – and the slow pace of the vaccination programme may force a government rethink, and finally sink struggling businesses like Somchai’s.

Thailand’s worsening situation reflects an alarming surge of Covid-19 across much of Asia. As clusters are fuelled by British and other variants and inoculation plans falter, there is a growing gulf between more-vaccinated western countries and those lagging behind in jabs.

While the UK and US, who are leading the global vaccination drive, look forward to lifting pandemic restrictions this summer, Asian countries who managed to control transmission and keep death rates low in 2020 are now tightening curbs again.

In Japan the capital, Tokyo – just two months from hosting the start of the summer Olympics – is currently under a state of emergency. South Korea, hampered by a tight supply of vaccines, is struggling to beat back an uptick of daily infections swinging between 500 and 700 a day.

In Vietnam, 70,000 people are in quarantine as health authorities brace for a potential wave of some 30,000 cases, and even Taiwan, which has kept its case count below 1300 and seen only 12 deaths, this week banned large gatherings amid an unprecedented cluster initially linked to airline pilots.

Experts have warned that Asian countries, plus Australia and New Zealand, which relied heavily on tight border controls and quarantine to stop the spread of the virus and keep deaths at a minimum last year will struggle to reopen as the world slowly emerges from the pandemic.

For tourism-dependent economies like Thailand, the economic impact could be devastating.

“This wave is definitely worse for business than the other two,” said Somichai.

The speed with which fresh clusters have taken hold of the capital, Bangkok, has forced the government to redirect limited vaccine supplies to hotspots, imperilling the earlier target of vaccinating 70 per cent of Phuket by July.

The government has been accused of failing to secure enough vaccines when it had the chance and for relying on just two suppliers – China’s Sinovac and AstraZeneca – although supplies of Sputnik V and Pfizer are expected later this year.

Less than 3 per cent of the population has been vaccinated and mass immunisation is not expected before June.

“The vaccine centres in Phuket seem to have run out of supplies and it’s harder for people to get appointments,” said Somchai.

The struggles of Asian nations, Australia and New Zealand to launch mass vaccination programmes are generally down to the crunch in global supply and late orders placed by their governments, said Dr Jerome Kim, the director general of the International Vaccine Institute in Seoul, South Korea.

“Flu vaccines are one of the most common vaccines worldwide, and they make 400 million doses a year. We’re asking companies to make 12-14 billion doses of this vaccine. So the difference in scale is enormous,” he said.

Last June, the US and the UK, both in crisis over the pandemic, took a gamble on investing early and heavily in new vaccines, and in retrospect it paid off, putting them at the front of the line, he added.

“The risk equation was different for Korea and Japan… for the US they knew everything was failing. They couldn’t get people to wear masks, they couldn’t get enforcement of distancing laws or keep people out of restaurants or churches and so they said okay, the only thing we have are vaccines.”

But the question of whether Asia may ultimately fall behind the UK, US and Europe as the world slowly emerges from the pandemic is a difficult one to answer.

“Even if the United States is successful in vaccinating its people and opening up, if 500,000 people died, who did better?” asked Kim.

“It depends on what the end in mind is. If your end in mind is being safe from the fear of being infected, hospitalised or dying, then it’s actually at this point still safer to be in Korea or Japan or Australia than it is to be in a partially vaccinated western country,” he added.

“Even in the UK, with its high vaccination rate, you’re still at between 30 and 40 cases per million. Here in Korea, you’re at 11, 12, or 13 and in Japan you’re in the 20s and in Australia it’s zero.”

Throughout the pandemic, mortality rates across most of East and Southeast Asia have been drastically reduced through timely and effective measures, from 518 in Thailand, to 1893 in South Korea, 11,249 in Japan, 35 in Vietnam and just 12 in Taiwan.

Life within the borders of many of these countries has also remained normal. For months, China, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand – who are expected to catch up on vaccination rates later this year – have enjoyed the sense of normality the UK is about to re-experience.

The cost has been travel restrictions and harsh quarantine rules, but with domestic tourism booming, and businesses remaining open, for many nations in the East, the economic damage has been limited. Taiwan and China, in particular, saw their economies grow last year.

The longer-term economic impact of closed borders remains a concern. Most Asian economies won’t reach herd immunity until 2022, according to recent estimates by Goldman Sachs, which could leave some countries behind as international business travel resumes.

On Friday, officials in Hong Kong said a much anticipated travel bubble with Singapore would likely be delayed beyond its original start date of May 26 due to a spike in cases in the city state that has forced it to reintroduce social curbs.

“It’s something that’s been considered from the beginning of the pandemic, that there might be a real trade off between how long quarantine might be in place for the countries that really succeeded in controlling the disease,” said Professor Francois Balloux, director at the UCL Genetics Institute.

“The countries that have controlled the virus quite effectively, like South Korea, Japan… they are facing the same problem – with the exceptions of the countries where they have had effective vaccination campaigns – how will the go back to normal, how will they open their borders?”

The longer it takes to obtain vaccines – especially in Southeast Asia nations where the medical system is under-resourced – the bigger the risk of the virus seeping through and creating havoc to public health.

This rings true for countries like Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, which have been praised for controlling Covid-19 but which are now bracing for unprecedented outbreaks.

“I hope they will never see the death tolls we saw. The numbers are up but they’re still tiny – I mean, if we plotted them on a chart, they’d still be well below any of our peaks, so we have to have some relativity,” said Prof Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at Edinburgh University Medical School.

“But also, I think, they will get those vaccines out one way or another – even if it’s Sputnik, or Novavax, or Sinovac,” she said.

“They’re poorer countries. If they had the wealth of Britain they could have steamrolled it, they would have been able to procure the doses. So I think in some way it’s unfair to say those countries haven’t done well. Given their resources and their wealth, they’ve done extraordinarily well.”

In the meantime, some are bypassing their governments to take matters into their own hands.

In Thailand, tour operators have begun launching vaccine packages to the US after some states began offering free shots to tourists.

Buranee Virapuchong, deputy managing director of Unithai Trip, a local tour operator, said she had received overwhelming interest from the public for tours costing between 68,000 to 280,000 baht for the chance of one or two shots.

The company has sent only around 20 people so far because of the current delays in getting US visas in Bangkok, but “we have been getting enquiries all day long” since the tours launched, she said.

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