Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Gov’t still undecided on vaccine acquisition, as cluster surveillance spreads to the provinces

Health Officials closed off a market in Kandal province’s Kandal Steung district after an infected person visited the market. Panha Chhorpoan
Health Officials closed off a market in Kandal province’s Kandal Steung district after an infected person visited the market. Panha Chhorpoan

The Cambodian government had yet to decide where to acquire a COVID-19 vaccine from and was waiting for guidance from the World Health Organization, as a new community transmission cluster grew to 40 cases.

Or Vandine, Health Ministry secretary of state, said the WHO was yet to officially endorse a vaccine and the government had not decided which vaccine to acquire. The government, especially Prime Minister Hun Sen, has already started soliciting donations to fund the acquisition.

“We have not decided [to buy vaccines] because we are discussing it with each other and no vaccines have been recognized by the World Health Organization yet,” Vandine said.

The government and health officials are attempting to control a community transmission cluster that has resulted in 40 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since November 28. The cluster has resulted in the closure of the Interior Ministry some small business, schools and entertainment venues.

The government has shut down a market in Kandal and sprayed another in Kampong Thom with disinfectant, and is also testing staff at two hotels in Mondulkiri and Kratie.

Even as Hun Sen asked for funds to purchase vaccines, Vandine said that the prime minister was more focused on the health of the people and not as much with budgetary concerns surrounding vaccine acquisition.

She said the Health Ministry was working to try and find all infected Cambodians and people with direct or indirect contact to those with the disease.

“So, if we work hard to find the relevant people and if we find them fast, we can cut off the transmission of COVID-19 to other persons, which is a good sign for Cambodia,” Vandine said.

Vandine refused to speculate on potential vaccines suitable to Cambodia’s needs, again reiterating she was focused on controlling the current outbreak. She said the third and final round of mass testing, linked to the November 28 cluster, would be carried out on Saturday, after which officials will be able to analyze the progress made so far.

According to a WHO statement released December 10, the government had conducted more than 21,000 tests in relation to the cluster, taking advantage of increased testing capacity in the country, which increased from 600 a day during the early parts of the pandemic to 3,000 a day currently.

The three main COVID-19 testing laboratories are Pasteur Institute, the National Institute of Public Health and a testing facility in Siem Reap. The University of Health Science is also being prepared to conduct COVID-19 tests.

Dr. Li Ailan, the head of WHO in Cambodia, said the multilateral body was working with partners to bring effective vaccines to high-risk priority populations in all countries through the COVAX Global Vaccine Facility.

The COVAX initiative looks to provide affordable and effective vaccines to all countries in an equitable manner, with Dr. Li saying the initiative should provide enough vaccines to inoculate 20 percent of Cambodia’s population.

“COVID-19 vaccines will only be available for use in a country after they have been approved by the national regulatory authority; use in the COVAX Global Vaccine Facility requires either approval by a stringent regulatory authority or WHO Emergency Use Authorization or prequalification,” said Dr Li.

As she has been doing for months, Dr. Li said that while the likely-soon availability of vaccines would help fight the pandemic, people should continue to take steps to keep safe, such as wearing a mask, hand washing and social distancing.

Government Spokesperson Phay Siphan said fundraising efforts for vaccine purchase will continue, confirming that the government had received close to $39 million.

A number of these donations have come from influential tycoons with close links to the Cambodian People’s Party.  But there have been smaller individual contributions from citizens, after Hun Sen posted bank transfer details on his Facebook page asking for donations.

“Totally, the budget that we have received from humanitarians is $38.7 million as of 6 p.m. on December 10 to buy vaccines in the first phase,” Siphan said.

On Wednesday, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Licadho called on the government to test all prisoners who had come in contact with a senior Prisons Department official, and ensure they had access to health and safety measures in prison.

General Department of Prisons director-general Chhem Savuth was one of the first people to test positive for COVID-19 in the recent cluster and had visited Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison while possibly contagious.

The three rights groups said no prisoners at Prey Sar’s Correctional Center 1 had been tested, despite 250 officials at the prison being tested for COVID-19.

“The transmission of COVID-19 in Cambodia’s poorly equipped and extremely overcrowded prisons could be devastating,” read the statement.

In response, the Health Ministry released a response on December 10, where it said that there had been no instances of flu-like symptoms in all the prison staff and inmates at CC1 nor had any infectious prisons official visited the premises.

However, pictures posted to the Facebook page of the Prisons Department show Chhem Savuth at CC1 just prior to testing positive for COVID-19.