COVID cases climb as Southeast Asia feels force of Delta variant

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Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) mass vaccination program in Tangerang
People wearing protective face masks sit before receiving a dose of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine during the mass vaccination program at the Tangerang City Government Center, in Tangerang on the outskirts of Jakarta, Indonesia, June 30, 2021. REUTERS/Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana/File Photo

July 9 (Reuters) - Having escaped the worst when the coronavirus pandemic erupted last year, Southeast Asia is now suffering dramatic rises in deaths and cases, while vaccination shortfalls and highly contagious variants derail containment efforts.

As countries like Britain, Germany and France prepare to remove most remaining restrictions after devastating outbreaks, governments in Southeast Asia are tightening measures, hoping targeted lockdowns will act as circuit-breakers in arresting record jumps in cases and deaths that started rising in May.

Indonesia, the region's hardest hit and most populous country, recorded more than 38,000 cases on Friday for a second successive day, six times the number a month earlier, in a week when its daily death toll as much as doubled from the start of July.

Authorities extended restrictions to 15 new locations across the archipelago on Friday, hoping to avert the crisis seen on the island of Java, where hospitals are being pushed to the limit, oxygen supplies are low, and four of five designated COVID-19 burial grounds in the capital Jakarta are close to full. read more

A record 9,180 cases were reported on Friday in Malaysia and a similar number in Thailand, where authorities announced tougher measures in and around the capital Bangkok to slow the spread of the Delta variant, including a curfew, travel curbs, mall closures and limits on gatherings. read more

Neighbouring Myanmar saw 63 deaths and 4,320 new cases on Friday, both record highs, while Cambodia has seen its highest number of cases and deaths in the past nine days.

Health experts say low testing rates in the most populous countries Indonesia and the Philippines are also likely disguising the full extent of outbreaks, while Myanmar has seen a collapse in testing since February's coup.

Vietnam's reputation as a coronavirus success story is under threat, with more cases in the last five days than during the first 14 months of the pandemic, although the record 1,625 cases on Friday were a fraction of those in Indonesia. read more

Panic-buying preceded Friday's imposition of movement restrictions in the epicentre Ho Chi Minh City, while the capital Hanoi has announced measures to insulate itself from outbreaks in other regions in the country of 98 million people. read more


Dicky Budiman, an epidemiologist at Griffith University in Australia, said the region was struggling to cope with the Delta variant and paying for inconsistencies in strategy, messaging, and enforcement of protocols.

He cited the need to broaden the range of vaccines, noting the dominance of the China's Sinovac (SVA.O), owing to its vaccine diplomacy when Western brands were unavailable.

"In handling the pandemic at a bigger scale ... vaccines can't stand alone," he said. "Vaccines need to be diversified. Resources need to be diversified."

Immunisation rates remain low, with 5.4% of Indonesia's 270 million population fully inoculated, about 2.7% of people in the Philippines and 4.7% of the population in Thailand. Malaysia has vaccinated 9.3% of its 32 million people and has introduced an enhanced lockdown in its capital and industrial belt.

Indonesia and Thailand on Friday said booster shots with mRNA vaccines would be administered to health workers - most of which were given Chinese vaccines like Sinovac - amid concerns about their resistance to variants. read more

Thailand said the Pfizer (PFE.N) and BioNTech (22UAy.DE) shot would be given to its medical workers, while Indonesia said Moderna (MRNA.O) vaccines would soon arrive for use among health staff.

With a worsening outbreak and worries about the efficacy of vaccines offered locally, appetite has quickly grown in Thailand for mRNA vaccines, which aren't available until near the end of the year.

A Thai hospital on Friday said booking slots for 1,800 shots of Moderna's vaccine were sold in minutes, after it offered it on e-commerce platform Shopee. read more

Singapore is among the few bright spots, with authorities to soon ease restrictions imposed when the Delta variant was detected, and complete the immunisation of half of the population later this month. read more

Alex Cook at the National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health said the city-state was an exception, with its neighbours far behind.

"This shows the need to redouble global efforts at fair vaccine deployment to ensure higher risk individuals in lower income countries can also be protected," he said.

Additional reporting by Aradhana Aravindan in Singapore; Editing by Ed Davies & Simon Cameron-Moore

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Thomson Reuters

Stanley reports on breaking news in Indonesia. Before joining Reuters, he was a freelance reporter who wrote about the arts and politics in the Southeast Asian country. In his spare-time, he likes listening to ambient music or going online to scour for the trendiest memes.