Blinken cuts short S.E. Asia trip after member of entourage tests positive for Covid-19 in Malaysia

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (centre) and Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah (right) arrive for a meeting in Putrajaya on Dec 15, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

PUTRAJAYA - US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has cancelled the Thailand leg of his South-east Asia tour, and was returning to Washington on Wednesday (Dec 15) after a member of the entourage travelling with him tested positive for Covid-19 in Malaysia.

The person from the media, who has not been named, did not participate in any of Mr Blinken's scheduled activities in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday (Dec 15).

State Department spokesman Ned Price said the decision to abbreviate the trip was made "out of an abundance of caution".

Mr Blinken and senior staff have been tested on all stops of his tour including on arrival in Kuala Lumpur late on Tuesday, Mr Price said, reported newswire agency Reuters.  The patient tested positive on arrival in Kuala Lumpur Tuesday night.

Mr Blinken arrived in Malaysia from Indonesia.

"Wisma Putra was informed by the US Embassy early this morning, and the Embassy arranged accordingly with the Ministry of Health," a Malaysian foreign ministry spokesperson said in response to inquiries.

"This person has been immediately isolated and sent to a quarantine centre, whereas other close contacts had been re-tested with results all negative as of 12 hours ago. We will continue to monitor the situation and update from time to time," the spokesperson said.

The US embassy in Kuala Lumpur said in a statement: “We would like to thank the Malaysian Ministry of Health for their outstanding support for the health and wellbeing of the Covid-19 positive individual.”

A joint press conference by Mr Blinken and Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah went ahead in the morning with both American and local press in attendance.

In his remarks at the press conference, Mr Blinken had commended Malaysia's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, especially its vaccination programme which has inoculated nearly four-fifths of the population.

The two leaders discussed vaccine inequity that has especially plagued Africa. Several experts believe the continued emergence of new variants, such as the virulent Omicron, are due to uneven levels of vaccination and immunity.

Secretary Blinken said Malaysia's capacity to distribute excess vaccines to other countries and the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access initiative is "deeply appreciated and evidence of real leadership."

"By 2022, the US expects to donate 1.2 billion vaccines around the world without strings attached. We have a commitment to see what can be done to close the gaps in terms of vaccinations," he said.

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