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As government rolls out AstraZeneca booster shots for border workers, tycoons told to wait

A box containing 332,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccine donated by Japan arrives at Phnom Penh International airport, July 23, 2021. CamboJA/ Panha Chhorpoan
A box containing 332,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccine donated by Japan arrives at Phnom Penh International airport, July 23, 2021. CamboJA/ Panha Chhorpoan

Cambodian frontline workers at the Thai border who are fully vaccinated with Chinese-made inoculations are now receiving third-shot boosters of AstraZeneca serum, but the general public will have to wait to get theirs — tycoons included.

On Monday afternoon Prime Minister Hun Sen released an audio recording with a new vaccine directive, informing members of the business elite, as well as non-frontline government workers and others who have requested AstraZeneca shots, that there are not yet enough doses available for everyone to have one.

“We will vaccinate only frontline officials who [have already been] vaccinated with Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccine,” Hun Sen said. “I am ordering the vaccination committee to seek to buy AstraZeneca vaccine.”

The Monday instructions from the prime minister follow a Friday message directing the Ministry of Health to provide AstraZeneca boosters to approximately 30,000 frontline workers at the border. On Friday, Hun Sen also ordered border officials to begin transporting returning migrants away from cramped quarantine facilities and back to their home provinces, as long as they’d already quarantined for one week.

In his latest announcement, Hun Sen said the news of AstraZeneca vaccines reaching Cambodia prompted new requests to the government from people who wanted to begin their vaccination process for the first time or who already received two doses of AstraZeneca and are now seeking third-shot boosters. The prime minister said it’s not yet known how effective such a booster would be for that last category, while testing has already shown positive benefits for people already inoculated with Chinese-made vaccines.

In accordance with Hun Sen’s message, the government will now be directing AstraZeneca third-shot booster doses to frontline officials interacting with returning migrant workers at the Thai border. This group of officials includes doctors, police and military units, including military police.

Sek Sokhom, director of Banteay Meanchey provincial information department said about 13,000 frontline officials in his province, one of seven along the Thai border, will receive an AstraZeneca booster. Sokhom said the province began providing third shots to frontline officials on Sunday and had already finished on Monday.

He added that many migrant workers in Thailand have not yet been allowed to return home because Cambodian border provinces are under a lockdown order. For now, Sokhom said the Banteay Meanchey provincial governor has worked with his counterpart in Thailand’s Sa Kaeo province to provide the Cambodian migrants with food and other supplies. He said the Cambodian consulate general in Thailand and other officials have also distributed goods to the stranded migrants.

“I think that when we open our border checkpoints, migrant workers will increasingly return, so we must implement [Hun Sen’s] directive to transport any migrant workers who have been quarantined for seven days already to their home provinces,” Sokhom said.

He added that Banteay Meanchey provincial authorities have also arranged more places to temporarily house returning migrant workers.

Dy Rado, deputy governor and spokesman of Oddar Meanchey province, said his province also began delivering AstraZeneca boosters to frontline officials on Sunday. Rado said provincial authorities plan to vaccinate more than 4,000 people from August 8-15, beginning with doctors, health department officials and civil servants.

Rado added that Oddar Meanchey provincial authorities have also begun sending quarantined returnees back to their home provinces.

“We transported between 800 to 900 migrant workers to their home provinces,” Rado said, adding about 200 returnees are remaining in Oddar Meanchey as that is their home.

Pech Pisey, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, said the COVID-19 vaccination priority should be on people with no inoculations yet, citing government plans to vaccinate 10-13 million people to reduce new infections.

Still, he said the third-shot booster campaign makes sense given the lead of other countries doing the same after inoculating their publics mostly with the Chinese-made Sinovac and Sinopharm. Both of these serums are believed to be less effective than AstraZeneca, especially against newer variants of COVID-19.

“I think the speech of the prime minister is correct because he listens to the speech of WHO experts,” Pisey said. “I think that any people who have the ability to do so can go to get vaccinated with a third dose at a private clinic that has permission to vaccinate.”

On Monday, the Ministry of Health reported 508 new cases of COVID-19 including 121 imported cases, bringing the total count to 82,399 including 12,110 imported cases since the pandemic began in early 2020. The large majority of these cases have been recorded since February 20, when the ongoing community outbreak began in Cambodia. The ministry has also recorded 76,155 recovered cases and 1,585 deaths from the virus.

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