Some Asian officials and health experts remained anxious about COVID-19 vaccines that use mRNA technology, which instructs the human body to produce proteins that then develop protective antibodies. It’s the first time to use that technology in a global vaccination effort.
While the technology sped up the process of developing vaccines to combat the pandemic, it also prompted major Asian countries to proceed with caution and take their time before granting regulatory approvals for vaccines.
There have been some reports of allergic reactions from the COVID-19 vaccine, including anaphylactic shock and incidents like the death of a health worker 16 days after receiving the Pfizer shot, but a link has not been established and millions of people have already been vaccinated without incident.
“It’s not a bad thing to sit back a bit and see how others are doing,” said Lam Ching-Choi, a medical doctor and a member of the Executive Council that advises Hong Kong’s leader.
Hong Kong has yet to approve a single vaccine as it awaits more detailed clinical trial data ahead of a planned vaccination drive to start in February. It only has a total 161 COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic began, thanks to its strict social distancing measures and efficient contact-tracing systems.
Leaders of Asian countries like Japan and South Korea also don’t want a botched rollout to undermine public confidence in the vaccines, which is already low to begin with.
Japan, which is now posting record numbers of new cases, is slated to start inoculations in late February. South Korea also plans to administer shots next month.
Oceania countries Australia and New Zealand, which are also parts of Asia, are also taking it slow.
Australia expects to approve the vaccine developed by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE by the end of January and the AstraZeneca Plc vaccine next month.
“This extra time will allow those countries to learn from the experience of countries that have commenced distribution,” said Adam Taylor, a virologist at Griffith University in Australia. “The more information you have on the process of distribution and the safety of the vaccines, the more confidence you have in your own rollout. The technology used for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines has never been used before in humans and although safety looks good, the more data the better.”
New Zealand, which tops Bloomberg’s COVID Resilience Ranking of major economies that have best fought the pandemic, will only begin its rollout in the second half of 2021.
US, UK top early list of countries with most vaccines administered
The United States and the United Kingdom have already administered nearly 14 million shots combined after expediting approvals in December 2020. Israel, on the other hand, has already delivered two million doses, or 22 shots for every 100 people in the country.
Those countries seem to be racing to achieve what they call herd immunity, which they say happens when most of the population is immune to an infectious disease, thus providing indirect protection even to those who are not immune.
Some public health experts suggest around 80 percent of the population should be vaccinated before anything resembling herd immunity is achieved. (Related: Vaccine ‘herd immunity theory’ dismantled and debunked.)
The apparent wait-and-see approach of some Asian nations irked some of their citizens.
An editorial in South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh took an apparent jab at the government for its slow timeline for vaccination. It said: “We cannot forever ask people to stop their daily lives and endure the economic pain.”
Meanwhile, the main opposition party in New Zealand asked Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to explain why the country “has fallen behind the rest of the world with its vaccine program.”
But their approach is maybe the right one to take.
“Governments charging in too early when they buy vaccines at great cost and find they cannot use them meaningfully or they are expired – that could be a disaster,” said Jeremy Lim, associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.
Some officials also argued that rollouts will not immediately allow restrictions to be lifted since it will take the better part of a year for enough people to be vaccinated for conditions to become safe again.
Lim said there’s no point rushing to get to 65 percent of the population, but stumbling along the way and being unable to vaccinate the remaining 15 percent needed to achieve herd immunity.
“It doesn’t matter how fast you are,” he said. “It’s how strong you finish.”
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