Major coronavirus outbreak looms in Myanmar as vaccine drive stalls

Daily infections in Myanmar have set record highs this week, pushing total fatalities to almost 3,600. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

YANGON (BLOOMBERG) - Myanmar's Covid-19 inoculation drive has ground to a near halt due to a vaccine shortage, forcing the military government that seized power in February to hunt for new supplies to stem a spike in cases and deaths.

With the South-east Asian country receiving no vaccine supplies since early May, just 1.75 million of a population of about 55 million have been fully vaccinated, according to Health Minister Thet Khine Win.

The administration is now in talks with Russia and China to urgently secure more shots, officials said.

Myanmar's vaccination rollout, started by ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi in January, faltered as India restricted exports by Serum Institute of India, which had a contract to supply 30 million doses, and deliveries from the global Covax facility never materialised.

With new variants spreading across the country, daily infections have set record highs this week, pushing total fatalities to almost 3,600.

"A major outbreak of Covid-19 would affect everyone in Myanmar and would have devastating consequences for the health of the population and for the economy," said Mr Ramanathan Balakrishnan, United Nations' acting resident coordinator and humanitarian coordinator for Myanmar. "Given the reduced levels of testing, the high positivity rate among people tested is of great concern."

While Myanmar tested an average of about 20,000 people per day during the second virus wave under Suu Kyi-led civilian government, the number has sharply declined since the military seized power. The positivity rate now hovers around 25 per cent, official data show.

The flare-up in infections over the past month has triggered wider stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions, potentially hurting an economy that's forecast by the World Bank to shrink 10 per cent this year. The government last week extended a series of movement curbs, including a ban on international flights for a month through July 31.

On Thursday, authorities also ordered all schools to be closed nationwide for two weeks after reporting a record single-day addition of 4,132 new cases.

"If Covid-19 is not controlled in Myanmar, new variants may emerge and could spread to neighbouring countries and around the world," UN's Mr Balakrishnan said. "For the resumption of the delivery of essential health services, including Covid-19 vaccinations, it is essential that health facilities are kept safe, health workers and other service providers are protected and respected."

Dr Khin Khin Gyi, director of emerging infectious disease at the health ministry, said Myanmar will receive 2 million vaccine doses from China's Sinovac Biotech Ltd later this month.

Military chief Min Aung Hlaing also has also agreed to buy 2 million more of Russia's Sputnik V and negotiated for an additional 7 million jabs from those two countries, she said.

"Restarting Covid-19 vaccination efforts, as well as routine immunisation for children and other critical health services must be a top priority for Myanmar," Mr Balakrishnan said.

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