asia

Asia embraced China's vaccines to fight COVID-19. Now it may be uniquely vulnerable to Omicron


As the Omicron variant swiftly becomes the dominant COVID-19 strain in much of North America, Europe and Australia, the world’s most populated region has mostly kept it at bay. 

But Asia is bracing for the almost inevitable surge of Omicron cases in the coming weeks. 

Asian governments know that even with reinforced borders and tough restrictions, they can’t keep the highly infectious strain out forever.

They are now doing what they can with the resources available to them to protect their populations. 

But some parts of Asia are relying on a vaccine that may not offer adequate protection against the new variant. 

Omicron puts Chinese vaccines to the test

Sinovac and Sinopharm were initially popular across Asia, with more than 30 nations either buying jabs or receiving donated shots, as China aggressively used its vaccines as a diplomatic bargaining chip. 

A forklift driver shifts a huge box with 'Sinovac' written across the side
Sinovac and Sinopharm were used in many parts of Asia and South America. (Reuters: Jose Cabezas)

But some studies have raised concerns about how Chinese-made vaccines fare against Omicron infections. 

Scientists in Hong Kong say three doses of Sinovac do not produce adequate levels of antibodies to fight the Omicron variant.

Another study by Yale University found that even a Pfizer booster did not do enough to protect someone who was double vaccinated with Sinovac.

The Yale experts recommended two shots of Pfizer for anyone who had received Sinovac, to make up the shortfall.  

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Beijing-based pharmaceutical company Sinovac insists its laboratory studies show three doses of the vaccine will neutralise Omicron.

While Western-made jabs Moderna, AstraZeneca and Pfizer are also less effective against the Omicron variant without boosters, one expert said people who received Sinovac and Sinopharm appeared to be the most vulnerable. 

“If we just look at the levels of this neutralising antibody, they appear to be on the lower side to begin with and required boosting even before Omicron,” said Dr Jerome Kim, the director general of the International Vaccine Institute.

Some Asian nations began making the switch away from Sinovac and Sinopharm before Omicron hit. 

Thailand is now offering fourth shots to those who received a double dose of Sinovac, or a cocktail of Sinovac and AstraZeneca. 

But other nations are sticking with the Chinese vaccines. 

Indonesia rolls out Sinovac for kids

Despite concerns, Indonesia is using Sinovac to vaccinate children between the ages of six and 11 — the only shot the country has so far approved for kids. 

A little girl in a Hello Kitty face mask leans against a woman as a nurse in scrubs prepares a needle
Some studies suggest Sinovac and Sinopharm offer little to no protection against Omicron without boosters. (ABC News )

“We are doing more studies, including on Pfizer,” Siti Nadia Tarmizi, a spokeswoman for the Indonesian Health Ministry, said. 

“Once the result is out then we can use Pfizer to vaccinate our children.” 

Since the Delta variant fuelled one of the most devastating outbreaks in Asia last year, cases in Indonesia appear to have stabilised. 

So far, only a handful of cases of Omicron have been officially reported in Indonesia, but experts know that it is likely to be circulating in much higher numbers. 

Indonesians can only get a COVID test if they pay for it. 

PCR tests cost about $30, which is expensive in a country where the average wage in Jakarta is $440 a month. 

More than 4 million infections have been recorded in Indonesia, but the real number is likely to be much higher given the low testing rates. 

Dr Kim expects many in Indonesia will be hit again as Omicron spreads. 

“It could potentially infect people who’ve been infected before,” he said.

“It appears that at least some of the data suggests that it may be less virulent, that people get less sick. 

Where will the ‘next Omicron’ come from? 

With the world now needing huge quantities of Pfizer and Moderna to fight off Omicron, Dr Kim says we are now reaching a “tipping point” when it comes to vaccine production. 

“Globally, we’re making between 1.5 and 2 billion doses a month,” he said. 

“Supply definitely should not be an issue.” 

A woman in scrubs touches vials in a big metal drum
Dr Kim says the world could be producing 2.5 billion vaccine doses a month by mid-2022. (Reuters: Ramzi Boudina)

Asia’s roughly 4.5 billion people will soak up a great deal of the incoming supply. 

Even if their populations can be adequately vaccinated in the coming months, Dr Kim says many countries do not have the technical ability to test and monitor the virus circulating in their populations. 

And he warns that makes them prime candidates to be the next birthplace of a dangerous variant. 

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