Vietnam urges WHO to send more COVID-19 shots as cases surge despite lockdown

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SINGAPORE/HANOI, Aug 25 (Reuters) - While the rapid spread of the Delta variant and low vaccinations have caught much of Asia off-guard, no country shows more vividly than Vietnam how easily the highly infectious version of the coronavirus can foil strict containment policy.

Vietnam had successfully contained the coronavirus for most of last year but since April has been dealing with a large COVID-19 outbreak in Ho Chi Minh City, driven by the Delta.

Nearly all of its 370,000 COVID-19 cases have been detected since May and daily infections jumped above 10,000 for the first time this month, overloading hospitals in southern part of the country and raising case fatality rates.

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"It is a very good example of a country left behind when all the wealthier countries of the world grabbed the vaccines first," said Dale Fisher, a senior infectious disease expert at the National University Hospital in Singapore.

"This disadvantage will only be exacerbated as those same countries engage a precautionary third dose, while countries like Vietnam struggle in single-digit vaccine rates."

Vietnam has fully inoculated just 2% of its 98 million people, among the lowest in Asia, as it opted for containment policy and did not rush to procure vaccines, which it deemed financially too risky due to a severe global shortage.

"If the vaccination rate remains too low not only could Vietnam overtake Indonesia (as the next epicentre) but also be at risk of selecting another variant which is more likely in the unvaccinated population," said Roger Lord, a senior medical sciences lecturer at Australian Catholic University.

As the Delta variant has upended all assumptions about the virus, Vietnam, a key part of global supply chain for such brands as Samsung (005930.KS) and Nike (NKE.N), is now scrambling to secure more vaccines.

Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh sent a letter to the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) on Tuesday and urged its vaccine sharing programme COVAX to prioritize Vietnam "in the fastest manner and with the largest volume possible."

Its slow vaccination drive was also impacted by Vietnam's procurement plan, contrasting with many of its neighbours which heavily relied on China for supplies due to limited access to Western shots.

Vietnam, where anti-China feeling runs strong, has received just around 2.7 million vaccines from China. By contrast, Cambodia, Laos and Indonesia, have managed to keep vaccination rates higher by relying on supplies from Beijing. read more

At a meeting with Chinh on Tuesday, the Chinese ambassador said it would donate 2 million more doses of its vaccines, just a day before the U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris announced a plan to offer 1 million doses of Pfizer (PFE.N)/BioNTech vaccines. read more

Amid slow delivery of vaccines, Vietnam has introduced lockdowns and mobilised troops to restrict movements in Ho Chi Minh City, an elimination strategy also adopted by Australia with limited success so far. read more

"When case numbers become very high and presumably due to the Delta variant they (stringent lockdowns) become significantly less effective and make contract tracing very difficult," Lord said.

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Additional reporting by Chen Lin in Singapore; Editing by Miyoung Kim and Kim Coghill

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